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Fantasy The Dark Travelers

Estro receive the response with delight as he read it, penning a response for immediate dispatch before making travel arrangements.

Most Esteemed General,

I am delighted to learn that the Dominus and Senate have elected to entrust these matters to you. A sensible decision considering your clear position and purpose in neighboring Bolia. I would be insulted to not think you would take precautions in our meeting. You would not be the figure I have come to hear about recently in my investigation of affairs in this area. I will spare you or whatever subordinate you’ve entrusted to read this the details since you’ve provided a location. I will make effort to be there in a timely manner.

Deepest Respect,
Estro Dorozan
Imperial Wizard


Estro would make sure to learn about this location including if there might be some divine form of magical jamming. He was paranoid as well, not about to be lured into a spot where his expertise could be countered too heavily. He assumed he would be speaking with one of the General’s well-trained subordinates, this sort he had prepared to take control in case of his own demise. That also made them expendable proxies should the Man of the Mountain choose to engage with someone as dangerous as the Imperial Wizard. The only Hand to come with him as Darius, being his most experience agent in diplomatic matters.

K0mori K0mori
 
Damian0358 Damian0358 Sona Radar Sona Radar

Borok slowly slid his tongue across his teeth, as he listened to yet another semi-coherent assembly of words. He felt like he was making some progress when it came to understanding Yz, though her mannerisms still threw him off. Smacking his long tongue, he glanced towards Baba Voyka for a moment, before turning back to Yz. "Well, in that case... the surprise party will launch rather shortly...", he decided to go along with some of the odd phrasings, remaining as stoic as before. He knew that Voyka had been proven right in many of her points, but he couldnt give her the satisfaction of acknowledging it due to his previous moves. At least Yz had indeed provided some useful information, albeit in an unorthodox way. Catching their enemies unaware was still on the table, which was good enough for him.

"I thank both of you for meeting here on such short notice...", he started to conclude the talks. "... and for your patience...", Borok continued, this time looking more towards Baba Voyka again. "I have no doubt that you will make good progress in the East. Keep us informed about your movements and we will try our best to secure the supply lines as soon as the surface is cleared.", some more amicable words were chosen now. "The same goes for you.", he also adressed Yz, though he had his doubts if she'd actually care about these matters. "Now, if you'll excuse me... I have some weaponry to ensorcell and some magma to unleash..."
 
Kaula, Northern Piantia

Guillaume rode swiftly across the Kaula frontier towards Paestrum, tracing the path the bloody wolves had left to deliver a message which had arrived at the staging area. Through empty villages and across barren and untended fields, he lamented at the wicked wrath the Red Butcher had heaped upon the peoples of the land. Eventually closing in on Paestrum at nightfall, he finally began to see movements other than wild animals, but it was not a welcoming sight for him. For this was no longer a land of the living.

Riding into Paestrum, he could witness the wolves newest additions as he passed Piantian militiamen guarding the town gates. He gave them a solemn look, sorrowful of the horrible fate of these men and women. But he knew he could not lament them, for in return they simply gazed up at the rider with sunken faces and hollow eyes.

Guillaume then rode to the chapel, which Alexandre had turned into a sort of war-room for the coming advance. Opening the door, he could see it was considerably darkened and sparsely lit with candles. Most sickeningly, the once beautiful stained glass windows had been painted with blood, making the moonlight bathe the desecrated halls in a crimson hue.

Immediately inside, he encountered Constin. The baron gave him a curt nod, and pointed towards the altar at the far side of the hall. There, illuminated by the sanguine light, he could see Alexandre laying on top of the bloodstained altar as if laid to rest with her arms crossed over her chest. The decimated body of the bishop had simply been tossed aside, and now lay at the foot of the altar. Standing next to this scene was a young drow, dressed in an astrologer’s attire and speaking to Alexandre.

…and that is why I must urge you to seek this so called circle of stars out, my liege. Untold wisdom of the ancients could be yours if I can…” the young man spoke, but hastily cut himself off as he heard Guillaume approach him from behind. He viewed the knight with fear from behind his dark, wavy hair.

As Alexandre noticed the footsteps of a knight, she began softly sniffing the air without moving or opening her eyes. A smile crept across her face.

Oh my dearest Alsin. You’ll have nothing to fear from a mere messenger” she said with a slight chuckle. Alsin, apparently not convinced by Alexandres words, gripped his tome with nervous hands as Guillaume glared at the later with clenched fists.

Alexandres eyes then opened and she took a deep breath, “Our foes lick their wounds and cower at the mere mention of their new visitors” she continued as she rose slowly and stepped down from the altar, trampling the bishops corpse under her heavy frame, filling the quiet hall with the nauseating sound of snapping bones and crushed flesh.

We shall investigate this circle of stars you seem so adamant about” Alexandre said, looking at Alsin and gripping him by the shoulder. “After all, we’ve got time on our hands and I’m sure the Piantians will taste even better with an appetite”. Alexandre licked her fangs, which unnerved the drow who seemed to shrink in the shadow of her massive form.

Constin will make the arrangements, you’ll ride at dawn” she concluded, turning Alsin around and gesturing towards the door. In reply she got only a nervous nod as the astrologer hurried away.

Alexandre then turned her attention to Guillaume, whom still stood unmoved. Stretching out her hand, she mockingly requested the missive from him, which he delivered in a motion of shackled rage.

To the ripper of flesh and harvester of souls, Alexandre

I hope this letter finds you well, covered in blood and entrails. How goes the campaing? Rumors are starting to swirl of the Bone coast becoming a deathtrap once again. I cannot possible take the credit for such a development all for myself.

There is another reason I'm writing you this letter. The emperor's spymaster has apparently hit a new development on her end. Some mermaid has appeared and allied herself with Sandach. She asks if we are interested in joining in for some slaughter and while I believe you might delight in some additional killing, I do not want to commit on your behald especially when you might have other things that need more immediate attention.

I also suspect our spymaster may have some other machinachions in the works on account of her profession, but what they may be, I cannot say. I'll await your answer before I make any decision to Veno's proposal.

Best wishes

Captain Cordia

Alexandre was elated to receive a message from Cordia, but was mostly perturbed by Venos request to divert their efforts to Weildach. She penned a reply, which she gave to Guillaume to deliver immediately.

My friend and companion of night.

In lieu of rainfall for their meager harvest, the Piantians will pray that their blood will bring nourishment to their soil.

As for our dear spymaster, should she wish to come into my favour, you can inform that delectable creature that she can come and see me for herself.

Yours in hunger and bloodshed

A


Some time later

The search for the firelight megalith had passed uneventfully. With the Piantian militia withdrawn to the south while harried by the wolves and their horrid minions, Constin, Alsin and their scouts had moved through the lands with ease. Fortune found them when some unsavory brigands had been encountered, who by chance knew of the mysterious monuments location.

Standing prominently upon a small hill in the midst of a field, what Alsin had referred to as The Circle of Stars consisted of an outer ring of twelve steles bearing inscriptions of various stars and an inner ring of dolmens, which were bare of any markings. The astrologer immediately began taking notes as the rest of the party set up their camp in the center of the inner circle.

As night fell and a bonfire was lit, the party had unwittingly stumbled upon the ancient design of the megalith. As the flames illuminated the inner dolmens, the shades it cast could be seen obscuring 9 of the outer steles, leaving only three stars bathed in light.

A R C T O R O S
In the constellation of the Great Bear

B E N T O S
In the constellation of the Chariot

C A L L I G R O S
In the constellation of the Eagle

With this new discovery, the Astrologer was ecstatic beyond measure and immediately requested to be escorted back to Rocher, where he could make use of the Patriarchs extensive library to decipher the mystery of the night sky.

Breadman Breadman Infab Infab
 
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Voyka looked at Borok with an immensely smug expression, as Yz explained in their way what they had learned in their excursion. All that Yz had explained, aside from potentially tiring out the enemy through paranoia, was information that they already knew. They had functionally only gotten confirmation that things were proceeding as planned, and the last thing they needed was confirmation through nearly revealing their efforts. She could sense that Borok knew this, but continued to avoid acknowledging her.

She bowed towards Borok after wishing her well on her plans after the attack. "I'll be sure to remain in contact," she replied simply. With Borok facing away from them to concentrate on the beginning attack, Voyka looked at Yz. Though it had been decided he would go first, nothing had been discussed on who would follow after his attack. She still believed, given the circumstances, that going last would be best for her forces, but as much as she would want to, she couldn't force her will on Yz to make that the course of action. Everyone being in agreement mattered for battles such as this.

"Yz," she addressed the being, "given that our Dark Lord will arrive in the summer, it is likely he expects all of us to be reported as partaking in the incoming battle, so no matter whether you've already interacted with the enemy, as I've told you already, you have no choice but to fight. Especially more so with everything you've shared about your previous interaction, as you would likely be able to distract the enemy with your presence in the battlefield, enraging them. So I believe it would make most sense for you to follow Borok after his attack, and for me to support you thereafter. But do you intend to do so, or not?" she posed her final question to Yz. She doesn't know what she'll do if she doesn't get a direct answer now, no matter how obfuscated, even trying to throw them a bone by indirectly acknowledging a potential positive in their excursion. The last thing she needs now is having to double-guess herself in terms of battle order, whether she goes 3rd or 2nd, even more so with Yz expressing disinterest in battle since the start of the meeting.

Sona Radar Sona Radar
 
K0mori K0mori

She considered the mans words as he defiantly stood against her. And there was truth in the words he spoke. Briggun broke down people as he conquered them. He changed them into other things. Servants to the empire that would eventually rule the entire world. She observed calmly as he spoke occasionally taking another bite of her pork.

"Upon my conquering of Ysaval I will take some under my banner. For individuals that can see glory and fortune in the golden horde I will not forsake. But I will make sure that the fields are plowed, water flows, and the people are free to partake in their traditions and songs. Perhaps there are some worthy of partaking in myself." She'd say raising her voice to a higher tone hopeful at the thought.

She would take a deep drink of her wine before proceeding to her next statement, "I respect your courage. And should I be the one to claim the victory of Ysaval it will be my right in how its people are ruled. But as the seasons go I may not be the only threat you face. And while I can invite you to parlay and you can trust to discuss and drink with... others would have had you slain and the command structure of the army thrown into disarray." She gave a brief snort to that comment seeing if it would disettle him. She would never actually do that but it was a sin of Falwyn's to enjoy watching people squirm.

"I know from hearing you speak the reason you came here was time. A time you will receive." She paused slowly rising from the table glass in hand, and the bottle in the other, "But in summer I will bring my fury down upon you. Countless of your men, your friends will perish by my breath and claws. As the caranage occurs I only want you to consider one thing. When have you sacrificed enough for Everan? If you decide you have had enough I will be waiting." She'd take another gulp of the wine finishing her glass and beginning to pour more in, "That is all. Please do enjoy the meal before you leave."

Falwyn would slowly stroll away from the table after her statement. A reflexive eye peering back to see if he had any final words or would try any tricks.
 
As the morning sun rose over Teralia, one of the crows returned to Cordia's ship, bearing a letter stamped with the seal of Rocher. The paper seemed a bit...crumpled. The sea witch eyed the crow if it damaged the letter somehow. The letter was short, but to the point.

My friend and companion of night.

In lieu of rainfall for their meager harvest, the Piantians will pray that their blood will bring nourishment to their soil.

As for our dear spymaster, should she wish to come into my favour, you can inform that delectable creature that she can come and see me for herself.

Yours in hunger and bloodshed

A
The Banshee captain was delighted to hear that Alexandre was taking good care of her new lands and that her own reservations towards the spymaster. Now she could make a decision, or perhaps there was an opportunity here. She penned another letter for Veno in order to inform her.

To Spymaster Veno

Lady Alexandre is preocupied by business in Kaula, but you would be able to gain favor with her if you meet. Perhaps that would be a wise decision, no? I have not held lenghty conversation with our colleagues to the North, but I suspect that they too are coordinating with each other. Maybe the southern commanders should do the same? I can offer a place for our first meeting as well. Despite everything, Teralia has a fine castle still, so it could play host for a meeting between us three and Esto, the enigmatic court mage, if his duties do not hold him rooted in place that is.

Best wishes
Captain Cordia
 
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He pulled out the small envelope, giving it to Munsie: "A missive sent for you from Lacans, by "The People's Hammer" himself. He was hoping for a meeting with you. Instead, what he will get is a surprise attack. If you would respond to his request for a meeting, he will not see our combined steel coming. What say you, to this course of action?"

Munsie gave a cat-like grin. "Oh yes, sir," was all she said for a moment, taking a sip from her glass which she could barely swallow due to her urge to smile. Even her legs kicked a bit, suspended as they were an inch or so above the ground where she sat. "I will accept his invitation and inquire as to the meeting place. If it's far inside the border, I'll send an imposter so that they will see her traveling, and then, on your word, we attack."

---
Estro would make sure to learn about this location including if there might be some divine form of magical jamming. He was paranoid as well, not about to be lured into a spot where his expertise could be countered too heavily. He assumed he would be speaking with one of the General’s well-trained subordinates, this sort he had prepared to take control in case of his own demise. That also made them expendable proxies should the Man of the Mountain choose to engage with someone as dangerous as the Imperial Wizard. The only Hand to come with him as Darius, being his most experience agent in diplomatic matters.

As he would come to find, the town of Venusa was a rural settlement in a picturesque valley, whose largest structures were the temple and the market. His spies would determine that the Civicerians had not taken heavy precautions against his power; instead, they used the isolation of the town itself as a defensive measure. Much of the defending legion was positioned at strategic points in a semicircular arc around said city, largely as a formality. It seemed, then, that the offer to meet was in good faith, but with whom would Estro be meeting? The temple was attended to by devotees to the Civicerian God of the Sky and Cosmos, Juva, and among the robed attendants of His house, there was no disguising the presence of outsiders. Although they dressed in the same manner as the monks, their mannerisms were subtly out of step, as if they were new arrivals.

Estro's approach, while noticed by the farmers and laborers along the road, was paid little mind. The people in these parts lived separate lives from those of the wealthy and powerful, and there was little acceptance for intermingling. It was also not uncommon for passing aristocrats to pay their respects at Juva's temple, and at first glance of Estro and Darius, one might assume that this was all that was happening. But Estro, being an experienced mage, began to sense something magical in the air- not malicious, but nonetheless present. The outsiders he had been notified about were mages, then, and some preparation had been made for him.

Finally, at the steps of the temple, one of the robed temple servants approached and gave a polite bow. "Welcome, sir. We have been preparing this space for an ethereal audience with the Man on the Mountain. Please, come in."

---
Falwyn would slowly stroll away from the table after her statement. A reflexive eye peering back to see if he had any final words or would try any tricks.

In this parting glance, Kande was sitting straight and appeared strong in all but spirit. The words were echoing in his ears: When have you sacrificed enough? He knew that he could give his life a thousand times for the people and country he loved, but to throw a thousand others' lives away for a bonfire slowly dying in a summer squall... He calmly took up his fork and knife, and ate in silence.
 
Estro regarded the temple with a certain degree of fascination, but his mind was already working as he took in information and the feeling of magic in the air. When the temple servant approached and informed him of the actions in motion, he understood more fully. He imagined Juva's domain would strengthen the ethereal magics to make it a far more secure and stable projection. This gave him ideas for later and perhaps a few more things he could test out or experiment with.

"Ah, compliments to the arrangements. I assume the temple perhaps will help with the projection?" He opts to voice his theory, always enjoying finding new little tricks for the application of magic.

Darius simply let his master take the lead, the imposing man simply observing the interactions and surroundings. He was quite good a details due to his own work so this was his chance to get a better feel for the Dominion in its faiths along with curious applications of magic. It was clear Estro was already quite amused and pleased by the application of such workings for a meeting he was eager to have with the Man of the Mountain. They were ready to proceed to said meeting though once the preparation was fully completed.

K0mori K0mori
 
Damian0358 Damian0358

Yz fiddled with their hands as they chose not to remove themselves from the floor, instead hearing Baba Voyka's question but choosing to not look in their direction when doing so. Instead of answering them immediately, they turned their attention to and waved at Borok who was leaving to attend to matters relating to the attack.
"Goo-bye Gooby the Goldfishy!... I still do not understand how he's breathing above water... " Yz waved as they pondered on other questions rather than the important one they were asked about the conflict. About to visibly attempt to leave without answering, Yz spun themselves without getting up using their legs and inched themselves away only a small distance before stopping and choosing to respond to Voyka so that she could have an answer.

"Yz is going to the surprise party to help the Mr. Mermaid and a half, because Grandmama is too spookied scared to go at the same time and wants to wait for everyone to show up so nobody sees them walk through the door and says their name" Yz claimed as they leaned their face out towards Voyka all of a sudden, making a blowing raspberry sound as if sticking their tongue out but wearing a mask so they physically could not.
"Intro-per-vert, being shy and then watching everybody like a creepy-creep, where does Mr. Biggums get these silly sausages? Yz is clearly the youngest and freshest and most beautifulest little person to grace Mr. Biggumses' eyeballholes that he understands everything Yz does is for the bestest cause and concern. Biggums will be so concerned that Yz is okay and not concerned for anyone else because he knows Yz is a valuable little Yz and we are all so proud of you" Yz rambled as they eyed for wherever the direction of the exit was, about to move before looking back at and pointing at Voyka once more, trying to give her the most serious stare and response while still having not got up off the floor at all.

"If I was being serious, I would have executed you with naught but removing your eyes with my bare hands and cracking your neck with my thighs the moment we first came to plan in your camp. It would have been VERY easy" Yz answered, pausing for an awkward silence afterwards as they continued to respond like nothing happened.
"Mama-Mumsie should come-come to the surprise party and NOT be late, and should bring a GIFT for the BIRTHDAY GIRL. Yz is hoping they have TWO pinatas, and a choccy-cake. Yz likes cake... ooh, and tamborines. They best bring all their bestest tamborines, and Yz will make the FINEST musical piece this realm has ever seen" Yz claimed as they gave a little wave and proceeded to 'royally' leave by dragging themselves across the floor like a dog on a carpet, clearly having no intent of stopping their chosen method of transportation anytime soon. Yz was clearly off to plan like a serious person who was completely ready for war for a powerful overlord, and super serious comrades who were also clearly taking things very seriously.
 
Voyka watched as Yz deliberately held the conversation in their hands, as if to further their own way of things even as she ultimately got her answer in the form of them opting to go second.

"It is Canarian military tradition, emphasizing each leader's strengths in battle individually-" Voyka attempted to speak after Yz's confirmation, only to be interrupted by them leaning in and doing a covered raspberry, as they continue on their rambling and suggesting their importance to the Dark Lord in being chosen as the newest of the lieutenants. Her serious expression remained, nearly turning into a bitter expression at annoyance at this newcomer trying to upend systems that Briggun had maintained during his reign.

It was only with the brief moment of pause, as if taking the mask off metaphorically, that Voyka once more had an expression of surprise. Eyes widened and lips dropped, before steadily growing into one of her infamous twisted grin. In that brief moment, she immediately recognized what was going on. Yz was just as much of a bastard as she was, with the only difference between the two being that while she embraced her bastard nature and embedded it into her ancestral traditions, her behavior, her mystique, while Yz opts to hide it behind a façade of whimsy. While she had nothing to prove, nothing to hide, about herself unless it involved the law or state, Yz catches their enemies off-guard and psychologically undermines them, as they had not the brute strength in either themself or in numbers to deal with them. Yz is a little shit who talks haughty and forces their own way despite having nothing to back their claims up.

Yz reminds her of when she was young and rising in the military, yet to have been kicked into the dirt by reality. Yz has regained some favor in her eyes.

Once Yz finished speaking and began leaving like a dog, Voyka began laughing aloud once more, to the repeated discomfort of the nearby Sauroids. "I'll make sure we have enough of everything we need for the birthday girl, don't you worry, dear!" Voyka responded, her laugh carrying into her response, as she made way back to her camp as well. Preparations were in order to make sure she would be able to support the two after they begin their attacks.

She made sure to note that Yz was her favorite to get Farandel's head now.
 
Had Borok known what unfolded between Voyka and Yz, he would have regretted already leaving the two behind. He had expected them to continue bickering, but there were more urgent matters to attend to now. While some uncomfortable guards remained to usher out the other lieutenants once they were finished, the Grand Runesmith delved back into the depths to personally oversee the last preparations for the surprise party. The deeper he went, the stronger the heat became. Only few wooden bars propped up the cave walls now, as it was utterly impossible to work the slaves here and even the Sauroid workers were struggling close to the magma. But for Borok, the hellish pit seemed like a small little paradise. His eyes gleamed brightly as the magma reflected from them and with a satisfied growl he began to swing his hammer, invigorated by the intense heat. A final piece was needed to complete the delicate process of drilling into the Demons Gate and unleashing it upon Sabresval.

Further up, the other Sauroids were also busy. Numerous caverns held eager engineers, filling pouches with blackpowder and fixing them with crude fuses. The air was thick with biting chemicals and eager anticipation as the forges worked without pause until finally the Grand Runesmith was satisfied. "As soon as the pressure reaches critical status, we make for the surface!", he announced to his anvil guard, only few words were needed to rile them up. "The Softskins will not be allowed to catch their breath! Strike them as soon as magma and brimstone have done their work! The surface is not our home, but it will be our feasting ground! Rip them apart, but leave the heads!", he shouted over the sound of hissing valves and the clatter of pickaxes. Borok took a deep breath in, seeping in the moment and the thick, used cave air.

-----

"As I expected...", Borok hissed with delight, as he pressed his hammer down onto an Elf desperately trying to crawl away from him. The wounded warriors screams grew louder as Borok heard a sharp cracking noise, but he took a moment to look around before slamming the hammer down again, mercifully hard this time. The battlefield was still steaming with noxious fumes and divided by streams of magma. The eruption had taken the Elves by surprise and so did the emerging Sauroids, hurling blackpowder satchels with lit fuses into their reforming ranks before smashing into them with armored scale and ripping claws. A mixture of hatches, hammers, pickaxes and sabres was used to cut through the remaining defenders, the thick smoke and torching heat providing ample cover to close the distance to each group separated by magma streams or freshly formed cracks in the earth. Borok overlooked the carnage with satisfaction, the Sauroids were already beginning to recover their wounded and round up any captives. "Some Softskins have entrenched themselves and are...", one black-scaled warrior tried to dutifully report, but Borok cut him off with a knowing nod and teethy smile. "The Baba Voyka wished to delight in killing those ones... let her have the pleasure, we have already done our part.", he let him know, before quickly extinguishing a faulty and still gleaming fuse. "Need to improve on that...", he muttered to himself, before forcing himself as upright as possible and raising his hammer high. "Victory is ours! Sabersval is ours! Let the feast begin!", he shouted and soon the lamentation of the wounded was drowned out by a cacophany of ripping, tearing, screaming and scrunching. Borok himself licked across his teeth before taking the arm of the elf underneath him and sinking his teeth deep into the flesh. Despite the feast, the Sauroids could still be overheard talking. "The Softskins all taste the same." - "We should sip the bone marrow first." - "These ones are so skinny, but tender..." - "Leave some for the mines, you fools!" - "I'll trade you a liver for those feet."
 
Approaching the encampment of Adanach's Great Horde
The Vestati delegation....


"I still do not see how this is not an insult. Look around us - it is naught but one inferiority after another. Every field in this rustic landscape should be tilled, every tree felled, every pit quarried. Maybe then there would be some value here. As for the locals...."

The haughty voice that trailed off craned their head aside, glancing disdainfully at the wildlands around them. For several weeks they had been traveling northward under order of the great Redeemer Prince himself as per some ridiculous bargain he had struck with the barbarians. Three bannerets - less than a dozen souls total accompanying three Vestati crusaders - were to join with the horde and assist them as needed in their military efforts. Even worse, there had been a request to learn about the chaotic nature of the vessels they were to join with. It was, surely, an insult. Perhaps not from the prince himself, but from one of his advisors, some coward who was afraid of the rising star named Zavastria sa Behrouz. Clad in a brilliant, shining display of silver armor and painted white-and-blue pauldrons, Zavastria rarely allowed his hand to stray from the hilt of his bejeweled longsword which sparkled no matter the angle of the sun.

Beside him upon another mount, a sturdy black unicorn with braided mane and tail, was a second knight. Unlike the brilliantly stunning array of metal plate, this one hid most of their attire beneath a voluminous black cloak. When the wind stirred the cloak aside, the armor beneath was well-maintained and intricate like most Vestati armors, but did not shine. It was a muted grey that seemed to devour light rather than reflect it, as if the cloak worn by this figure was meant to protect the world around it. "I must admit, Zavastria, that I thought your complaints would have been finished by the second week of travel. But I can see I underestimated the depths of your whining," the knight said, yawning despite it being shortly past noon. "We are blood-bound to the prince. What more can I say? We get to live as our elders, embarking alone to visit the lesser beings to awe them with our might. I find it exciting. How often do we featherless get to perform such actions?"

"I hate that you use that insolent tone, sister. Must we use so crude a term as featherless? We are the youngbloods, not featherless. We were born with glory in our veins despite having never had wings like our elders. Bless them, for I can not imagine the pain of losing such a piece of myself,"
Zavastria said. Unlike many of the older crusaders, the featherless - or youngbloods - were those born in the period after the Great Rebellion. Through the immense might of divine cosmic magicks, none were born with wings, for their forebearers had had theirs ripped not just from their bodies but from their souls themselves for their failed efforts.

Ystria sa Vael only laughed in response. "I can well imagine, actually. I'm sure you would have cried and whined more than ever."

Both knights rode their mounts at the head of the tiny column they were leading, in which their acolytes made up the body on lesser horses - not even unicorns . Their gear consisted almost solely of equipment to support the efforts of their sworn knight - weapons, smithing tools, tailoring supplies, icons of culture, as well as hefty campaign tents. Zavastria, owing to his prideful lineage to the house of sa Behrouz, had six acolytes beneath his wing compared to the meager two of Ystria sa Vael, a child to a house of no note.

There was only one other figure in attendance with this party, a lone rider some several feet behind the main convoy. They rode upon a white bicorne steed that seemed as whitered and aged as they themselves were despite their body being hidden beneath the intricate contours and inscriptions of the bronze-and-black armor that served as their skin. From the back of this figure emerged two skeletal wings, jutting out over the shoulders to either side, each faux-feather the tip of a broken sword claimed by a fallen foe; to any observer to have been blessed to witness such a magnificent sight, they would have noted the fullness of these metal wings and then judged it true that this knight had clearly slain far more than their trophies could ever suggest.

The Voiceless. They had abandoned their name in the wake of the rebellion along with the very essence of their voice, though it is whispered that, under some circumstances, the Voiceless did indeed speak on rare occasion, their voice little more than a horrid, bone-dry rasp that held within it the weight of ages long dead. They were one of the eldest Crusaders of the entire legion and had long served the Forbidden One before the rebellion had even been planned let alone thought about. In all those years they had taken few apprentices, and each of them were prominent warriors and personalities within the legion. Reserved as they seemed in movement, none disputed the sheer mastery of the Voiceless' fighting prowess with any weapon presented to them.

Occasionally, Zavastria would turn back to the Voiceless and proclaim whatever shallow thought entered their mind in the vain attempt to provoke the ancient figure to speak. So far, this has been an abject failure, much to Ystria's taunting delight. Likewise, when they were followed by distant eyes and echoing horns, the young knights readied themselves for a potential fight. But not the Voiceless. Still as death itself, the old crusader remained motionless - nearly uninterested - in the world surrounding them, the endless depths of their black eye slits only scanning their surroundings on a rare whimsy.

"We must be near," Zavastria announced as they heard more horns. They had spotted several goblin tribes some days ago, but now the parties were getting smaller - scouts and hunters, no doubt, moving about around the main horde itself. The night prior they had even seen the glow of distant campfires, and now they could smell them and trace the plumes of smoke. As they finally edged closer towards the growing bulk of the main encampment, they ensured their banners - only two flags, for the Voiceless rose none himself save for his faux-wings - were held aloft with the utmost pride, displaying the colorful glory of their house and the myriad battle pennants earned fluttering beneath. "[The smell induces sickness within me,]" Zavastria announced as they rode closer to the entrance of the encampment. He watched with ire as all manner of strange and wretched creatures watched and flanked them, either in interest, awe, or to ensure they were no threat. Try me, Zavastria thought, wanting to dearly demonstrate his superiority with his blade. Lady knight Ystria ignored the arrogant display of her sword-sibling and instead raised a quiet hand in greeting to the strange goblins and orcs that surrounded them.

Behind them, at the rear of their little convoy, the Voiceless merely tilted his head imperceptibly to examine the arriving bustle. At some point a small red-feathered bird drifted down from the sky and landed upon his metallic wings, perched there, watching in equal silence.

"[I feel as if I will be ill. Why do these vessels live in such squalor?]" Zavastria remarked once again. "[Have they no pride? No wit?]"

"[About as much as you, I suppose,]
" Ystria responded.

They carried on further into the encampment until they came to a stop outside a series of larger tents, surrounded by more warriors that seemed even more grand than those lurking about the entrance. In an extravagant show, Zavastria dismounted from his unicorn and planted his banner into the ground, holding it aloft so that the wind allowed the banner to whip back and forth. Then, in the Vestati tongue for he dared no speak in the language of the common vessels, declared, "[You have the honor of addressing Zavastria sa Behrouz, Crusader of the Hallow Legion and knight of infamy. You may kneel.]"

Ystria, on the other hand, merely bowed her head to those surrounding them. She produced a small letter and fluttered it about. "We are sent by His Majesty the Redeemer Prince to support your forces as per an agreement between our masters. I am Lady Vael, honored by the Whispering Void. The knight which stands before you is Zavastria of House Behrouz. And...." Her voice hesitated as she turned back to look upon the Voiceless, still as a statue as he watched her with a slight tilt of the head. "That one there is without name. He is a Witness. He has Seen, but he does not Speak. I ask not that you draw his ire," she said with reverence, bowing her head to the elder crusader before turning back to the other barbarians.

However, before she could speak, Zavastria did so again. "I will utter this but once in this language. Where is Adanach?"

---

In the sky above Declan's position, a raven with a miniature and finely crafted bronze crown - and crimson string-ribbons attached - descended to the messenger's post to deposit the letter attached upon their leg. Within was a letter from Lucafiel.

I hope this raven finds you well in all capacities - we tend to prefer the hand of travelers upon steed. Your assessment on a time to advance is sound, and we shall likely be in natural lockstep when the time comes. To further assist in relying messages, I suggest utilizing our lantern network. Attached beside this letter is a parchment with some code to decipher how to utilize lanterns to convey letters back and forth over vast distances. It should prove swift and secure, as it has for us.

(At the end of the letter is a small ink mark from a signet ring belonging to Lucafiel)
 
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Voyka readied her forces, coordinating mainly with Borok to organize attack positioning. Her forces would be positioned east of the tunnel exit into Sabersval, enabling her to conduct a traditional Canarian-style attack, all while avoiding the magma and fumes that were about to take the enemy by surprise. Per Canarian conduct, her forces consisted of a mixture of cavalry equipped with a mix of bows, lances and swords, and infantry with swords, axes, javelins, spears and bows. While her cavalry largely consists of horses, her own stead is a now-rare Rogovac breed of horned goat that had been tamed and bred to have the carrying capacity of a horse and a far less capricious temperament. Upon her own back and the back of some of her men, is a banner pole which bares Voyka's banner, with a spear tip on top for use as a weapon if necessary. Along with her banner pole, she carried with her the traditional baba staff, her trusty greatsword, and her personal set of knives, along with armor underneath her attire.

From a distance, she watched as Borok engaged the enemy, taking them by complete surprise. She had no reason to doubt the Sauroid's combat prowess - after all, he had been working with Briggun for so long - though it seemed he was about to rout the enemy entirely. Her view in him receiving Farandel's head was related far more to assuring he earned further respect beyond their Dark Lord, for she could imagine she isn't the only one to hardly see his face in Canar. Someone as proficient as he deserved his due respect. Though now the receiver of the head would receive it for far more malicious reasons. Speaking of, she watched Yz's forces rush in after, so in preparation she turned to her men. She had already given her speech as they were readying up earlier, so this was more to assure they were ready to rush in after Yz.

"Round up the sharp ears, slaughter the rest!" she exclaimed to her forces, reminding them of the spymaster's demands.

Soon, it was time, and Voyka followed suit, as it became clear that Borok hardly needed her or Yz. His men had already begun to act as if they had won, gorging themselves on the flesh of the enemies. Voyka laughed aloud, reminded of when she would feed the enemies slain on the battlefield to Kolthix's shadelings. Soon, she and her forces arrived to where Borok was, surrounding the remaining forces, entrenched. One of Borok's men approached her as she got off her stead, informing her the honor of dealing with this entrenchment had been left to her. After double-checking how many remained by their estimates, she chuckled and had her men ready in formation to rush in and capture the remaining elves.

"Before you inform Ronillson of my arrival, be sure to remind him of the Spymaster's request that we try to capture as many elven slaves as possible, both for the sake of Saarus and for the sake of her ambitions," she told the Sauroid and dismissed him.

She observed to see where Yz and their forces were located, before turning to one of her men aiding in cleaning up.

"Head back and inform those left behind to begin moving forward, assure continuity within the supply line and set camp in Sabersval," to which she received a salute in response. To another, she told him to call on Yz to join them in this final assault, with the suggestion it would look favorable to them in the after action report.

Once everything was ready, she approached her men in formation, and gave the signal: "Ⱓⱃⰻⱎ·"

---

A few days have passed since the successful victory at the Battle for Sabersval. The past days have been spent setting up camp where appropriate and ensuring that Sabersval was assuredly in Saarus control. More Elvans, who attempted to resist the arrival of the Empire, were captured and enslaved. The supply line through the mountain was secured and everything seemed at the ready for their Dark Lord's arrival, and thereafter her planned departure toward the border with Ysaval.

As she strode across her camp, she made way towards the section currently guarded the most. What laid there was the imprisoned Aelan Farandel, the Muzzled Wolf. She had treated her well, in spite of her knowledge that she was going to execute her. Though restrained, she was treated properly, and fed well. But on each day since the battle, three times she would head to her, sit in front of her, and sharpen her greatsword. Silently, Farandel would watch as the weapon that is to execute her was sharpened in front of her. And today, was the day.

"...ah, finally. As sharp as a sword intended for execution should be," Voyka spoke to herself, admiring her handywork, before turning her eyes toward Farandel.

"Tomorrow, your death awaits."

---

Gathered in the town square of the most populace town in Sabersval, where the frightened populace could watch, Farandel's public execution was underway. She would be made a public example to all who might consider resisting Saarus and what the end result for them might be. Farandel had been placed in the very center, her head and hands placed within an outstretched pillory, leaving ample room to decapitate her head without harming the hands. Choosing slightly more formal Rogovac attire for the occasion, Voyka stood by Farandel, the only other person next to her, with her greatsword standing by.

"Today," Voyka began, "we are here to witness the final judgment of Aelan Farandel, otherwise known as the Wolf of the South. Farandel has been charged with treason to the Saarus Empire, abetting the conspiracy maintaining Erevan's resistance to the rule of Emperor Briggun of Saarus, resisting capture and committing sedition by way of leading an armed force with the intent of subverting rightful Saarus rule," she pontificated, knowing she had no real judicial power or knowledge like someone such as Vuldar had, and certainly no executional authority like he does, but it was all a matter of instilling fear and putting on a specific narrative.

"Were it not for the magnanimous action of the grand Borok Ronillson, in defeating her forces, or for the inspirational courage of Yz, capturing the Wolf and muzzling her," Voyka pressed on, "Sabersval would remain in treasonous hands, of the Erevan aristocracy, draining the people dry and deluding them with notions of resistance towards a forest-dweller such as you all," Voyka gestured to the domestic crowd, whether watching from the paths or from their windows.

"For the crimes committed, Aelan Farandel is to be executed. The blood to spill will not only represent her own, but the blood that will spill with the liberation of Erevan from its bastard leadership. Long live the Saarus Empire!" Voyka finished, with her forces guarding the perimeter joining in.

As chants in the name of the Saarus Empire and the Dark Lord continued, Voyka got in position, raising her greatsword high up. With one swift swing, Farandel was decapitated, her head hitting the ground and staining it red. Several turned their eyes away from the sight. After a brief pause, Voyka began to laugh menacingly, as she swung the sword to break open the pillory's lock, releasing the body.

"MEN, RENDER HER INSIDE OUT!" she bellowed, as some of her men rushed in towards the body, whilst she picked up the head and displayed it for all to see, the sight causing even more to turn their eyes away in horror.

Behind her, several of her men began to deconstruct Farandel's entire body, using sharpened blades and stone to rip tissue and bone apart. Flesh and cartilage from elsewhere was repurposed to form a new horrified expression to sit where her head was, as her body was reconstructed and turned into a flesh scarecrow, a representation of what the Saarus Empire had come to destroy. An utter bastardization of the human form, unrecognizable in what being it used to be and from which parts it is made out of. It was to stand in the center of the town for three days, before it is to be moved towards the core of Erevan, to menace any scouts from there that might wish to see what had happened.

---

Washing her greatsword and clothes, Voyka received a visitor at her part of the camp. Rather than it being one of her men whom she had sent out to deliver Farandel's head to Yz with a message attached informing Yz not to lose it lest they incur their Lord's wrath, it was another carrying a letter that had been sent from the south, not from Canar but from Teralia. She received the letter and saw that it came from the banshee Cordia Dis.
To Baba Vojka

How goes the war effort, Baba? My coven has recruited its first new member in a long while, so it got me thinking how my sister in haxes is fairing. Have you had a chance to expand your circle? Have you taken hold of the Erevanians fears? Do you throt through their nightmares? Teralia is fun, but I'm curious about the rest of the world.

Best wishes
Captain Cordia
Voyka chuckled. At least someone thought of her fondly at the moment. She grabbed her paper and feather, and began to write in a response:
To my Banshee Sister Terrorizing the Seas,

The war effort goes well, Cordia. We spent the early spring assuring the battle to come would succeed, and thanks to the efforts of Ronillson, we demolished the enemy. We are currently consolidating our position in Sabersval, and I write to you after having just publicly executed the enemy general. If I did not haunt their dreams before, now it is assured. I plan to head east towards Ysaval by mid-summer, to aid Falwyn in her efforts, so any letters you send may see delay.

I have also had a chance to expand my circle, recruiting orphaned children rummaging through our supply line. Their trust in me is tenuous currently, but I have my ways in making them adore me like a grandchild does their grandmother.

I sincerely hope your efforts in Teralia and beyond succeed beyond your wildest imagination.

Your Hag Sister Truly,
Voyka
Knowing Veno was likely curious to hear what progress had been made in the Erevan Campaign, she penned a letter for her.
To my Dear Grandchild in the Shadows,

I'm writing to inform you we had successfully emerged victorious in Sabersval. Ronillson had successfully routed the enemy near-singlehandledly, with Yz capturing the general. I had attempted to ensure the capture of as many elves as possible, to head your way, but for once my bloodlust was not at fault; many defeated in battle were devoured by Borok's forces. Per our agreements in finding recluse Horned settlements, please send someone to Sabersval to look for my kin. If no one is free, have the one in Vismajora come here, as I continuously doubt any Horned are in hiding there, despite your assessments to the contrary.

I plan to head east towards Ysaval by mid-summer, to aid Falwyn in her efforts, so any letters you send may see delay. I hope you have progressed well in Weildach, and that your efforts succeed beyond your wildest imagination.

Your Granny Truly,
Voyka
Voyka frowned slightly as the thought of Veno's efforts aiding her in finding Horned holdouts - despite decent success a few years ago, whether it be secluded farming residents or hidden villages, they have found nary a thing, especially not the one who inspired her to conduct this search to 'unite' her kind. With her letters finished, she called the one that had brought her the letter and asked him to hand these letters off to be delivered southward. With that finished, she went back to cleaning.
 
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Damian0358 Damian0358

Yz was sat cramped in a very tight and enclosed space with their legs held tightly close to their body, for they had crammed themselves within the containment for no reason other than curiosity and boredom. Initially, they were to be trapped in said tight prison and thrown off a very large flight of stairs just for fun but it seemed like plans changed now that there were other things to attend to. Baba Voyka had, for some reason, entrusted them with the head of the poor maiden whom was just so fun to chat with the time prior. What a shame that Aelan didn't just choose the simple option of being Yz's friend, which would have turned out much better. In the end, Yz didn't even lift a finger at the battle since there was nothing to do. Borok had won before either them or Voyka joined in, which wasn't surprising to Yz after their little scouting adventure but was still disappointing.

"Welp, might as well get going, I've been here long enough" Yz sighed and groaned as they felt how restrained they were within their space, yet with all their might had they managed to turn themselves upside down even with the impossibly limited space. After a brief moment, the masked individual delighted in delivering a kick with both legs to the top of the containment and, finding that it was more durable than it appeared as Baba Voyka would probably hear an audible bang from a nearby barrel followed by an even louder and audible familiar voice blatantly shouting:

"FUCK-"

At the top of their lungs as the barrel they were in even jumped a little from the force. After a brief moment, Yz had kicked again and managed to burst off the lid of the barrel on the next attempt as their legs stuck out from the opening before aggressively kicking around in attempts to escape. After grumbly noises of discontent as Yz tried to upright themselves and get out, they casually sat in their barrel looking to Voyka who probably wasn't expecting them to be present at all as the masked one leaned on the rim, head leaning on a propped up hand.

"Hello ma'am, barrel inspection. I would give this an 8.5 out of 10, I don't think it makes for a very comfortable ride but nobody has thrown me down the stairs in a barrel yet. What a shame" Yz introduced as they realised that Voyka probably was expecting her to be doing something especially important, rolling their eyes as they reached into their barrel and pulled out the disembodied head of Aelan Farendal which they had received almost immediately considering they had shown up to Voyka's camp without announcement. Getting Aelan early was just a coincidental bonus.

"Don't worry, I was just letting her enjoy her last piece of cake" Yz answered as it was maybe or maybe not obvious they had been sitting on the decapitated head the entire time they were in the barrel, visibly making themselves giggle a little at their own joke.
"It's okay, mama, you can count on Yz to make sure that Yz gives Briggun head so that everyone's happy- wait, wait a minute, not in that way but- giving him, y'know, this head, the unattached one" Yz proudly proclaimed before slowing to a verbal halt at their own chaotically generated wording, realising that the sexual-referencial jokes had gone where Yz wasn't intending as they chose to change topic.

"Speaking of cake, Yz is hungy. What's for dinner, mama? What're you doing there?" Yz asked, continually trying to tease her as emphasis was placed into every reference of calling Voyka a mother. Curious a little about the stuff for writing that was visible, Yz questioned it.
"What that? You're doing messages, you have a penpal? Yz doesn't get to write, not since I tried to break my record of how many writing quills I could fit up my nose" Yz pondered as they slapped the rim of the barrel with one hand before adding on what made it truly impressive.

"Without seasoning" Yz claimed as they appeared to remember something.
"Oh! I do have this one letter, but it wasn't specifically for you, I was just saving it for a funny day, you can read it though" Yz said as they proceeded to grab their own mask and pull it forward, the most parts of where the mask touched the skin unnaturally stretched to stay connected like the mask and flesh were painfully fused albeit the bottom remained unconnected where for a brief moment a visible mouth was apparent. Letting a neat enveloped letter fall from out of the inside of the mask as Yz let go of it and let the mask comedically and loudly slap back onto their face, Yz caught and handed Voyka the 'letter not intended for her'.

Of course, if she read it, the only thing that would be included in it was a crude hieroglyphic-esque drawing depicting what Yz would be doing or acting as well as the briefest of words to describe what was being conveyed. The message was:


"So what are you doing, are you busy, can I have food? You wanna see what else I found in the fabled lands?" Yz asked in curiosity out of boredom as, apparently alongside the head they had with them inside the barrel, they slowly pulled out the fabled tambourine they knew waw being kept from them all this time. The pure expressive joy on an individual with no face over the tambourine was stagnating.
 
Voyka had barely handed off the letters and gone back to cleaning when Yz made an impromptu appearance from one of the nearby barrels that they had emptied out in the past few days. She squinted her eyes in confusion and annoyance at Yz's presence, sort of ready to just ignore the being and go back to cleaning when they pulled out Farandel's head, prompting her eyes to open wide.

"Be careful with that!" she exclaimed since she assumed Yz was sitting on it the entire time, based on how the hair was looking. Yz could tell she was genuinely concerned, given their Dark Lord's request, leading into them telling her it's okay and accidentally engaging in innuendos.

Voyka could hardly begin to explain she had written letters to other lieutenants and answer the question of food when she received a letter from Yz that they were saving for a 'funny day'. With a degree of hesitation, she took and opened the letter.
The grimace and twitch in her right eye was visible to all in the area, as if a loud boom played in the area. Was Yz fucking with her again? Was this a threat or were they just mocking them for being old? Eugh, and they waited for her answers to their previous questions, and more... including a tambourine. She needed to answer fast.

"If you insist on knowing," Voyka began, closing the letter and handing it back to Yz, "I had received a letter from Cordia Dis in the south, and I responded to her. I had also written a letter to Veno Dilach, informing her of developments here. Otherwise, I am just cleaning my things at the moment, to get the blood out of it from the execution earlier today. The food stall here at camp should still have some open fire lamb, bread, vegetables, and soup, though it has been a bit since lunch. You are free to grab what you like from there, however," she answered the initial questions.

"In regards to what you've 'found', if you want to share, feel free... though be sure to share it with Borok too," Voyka explained, genuinely hoping they weren't referring to the tambourine.
 
Damian0358 Damian0358

Yz casually waited for Voyka to finish reading the letter as they took it back nonchalantly after she was finished with it.
"I'll save that for later, just incase you forget and need a reminder... " Yz hummed quietly as they pulled their mask off a little in order to put it back. Hearing about the different people that Voyka had been sending letters to, it make Yz think that they should find a fun and colourful new way to send messages in which they can send all their funnest and nicest drawings to the friends and lieutenants they could think of. Delighted by the sound of free food to mooch off of Voyka, Yz was just about prepared to go and get some before they were told about sharing their discoveries. Hesitating for a moment as they clutched and eyed the tambourine briefly, Yz just tried to divert attention by joyfully whaking it and patting it against their hip.

"It can wait for later, but it starts with Deeee~!" Yz chimed cheerfully as they confirmed the first letter, rattling the tambourine faster for a moment in delight. Getting a feeling that Voyka wasn't the biggest fan of their antics, the masked one leaned on the side of the barrel.
"You should really lighten up Mama Voyka, limited time and infinite others who could replace you either with time or if Biggums demands it, and you spend it here being dull and mopey and cleaning, all you loo-tenants are so mopey and dark and edgy, like come on, do something else other than blood and slaughter, get a hobby or something. I might start a travelling band, I think I would make a pretty killer lead singer especially with this" Yz spoke as they brought attention back to their tambourine, giving it a joyful shake as they placed the head down so that they could get out of the barrel.

"Maybe you're stronger and smarter and better than me, but atleast I enjoyed every moment of it, I mean you basically threatened to cut my head off and I'm still here like nothing happened, I just wanted to return the favour, considering it seems like we'll be spending a  lot of time together. I can take good care of this silly little head and meeting with Mr. Biggums, so you should throw me a bone, and have some fu- MAMA VOYKA HELP, THE BARREL IS TRYING TO CONSUME ME, I GAVE IT A TASTE AND NOW IT'S TRYING TO TAKE ME WHOLE" Yz went from a logical and seemingly serious constructed sentence to panicked and aggressive flailing. Amidst trying to get out of the barrel, they had somehow fallen back in butt-first and were stuck sinking into an incredibly trapped and uncomfortable position, unable to tilt over the barrel and basically flailing around begging for Voyka to save them from the scariest foe thus far.
 
Voyka chuckled as Yz actually began speaking seriously to her once more, and suggested she get a hobby.

"This is my hobby," she responded with a smile after Yz gave a shake of their tambourine. It's not like she's ever had a chance to have any other life, and she has no issues going down this path further, so why bother? Regardless, cleaning is important, otherwise disease spreads.

She was ready to give Yz another thoughtful response when Yz got cut off by a voracious barrel. She shook her head with a chuckle, and got up from her cleaning station. Walking over to the barrel taking Yz captive, she grabbed it from the bottom, placed it on her right shoulder and then in one fell swoop, tossed Yz out of it. As Yz turned around on the ground, Farandel's head fell into their lap. She placed the barrel down and then offered her hand to Yz to help them back up - though whether they accept is up to them.

"Look, I appreciate the advice, but I have my fun when I'm out able to destroy my enemies, making sure everything is in order to enable that," Voyka said simply, before deciding to elaborate, "The lesson I tried to give you before the battle was as much me taking out my rage against you as it was in making sure you're aware of how things operate. No matter how much you might relish the opportunity you've been given, anyone can easily swoop in and ruin your fun, our Dark Lord included. That's why you need to play the game to ensure you can maximize that fun as much as possible. Mass slaughter's my kind of fun, which is why I make sure to go on campaigns with folks who enable me that, and in turn I can enable what they desire. I stay in my lane, and am able to do what I desire.

"The thing you pulled would've almost prevented me from having my fun along with endangering the campaign, simple as that. And the last thing you'd want to do is sacrifice another's fun for your own, right?" Voyka gave a sly grin to Yz.

"Anyway, go eat something already, the fact you couldn't tilt over that barrel's embarrassing," Voyka said in a grandmotherly fashion, "And ask one of my men to help you get washed, you stink too. The last thing you need is disease ruining your fun."

Sona Radar Sona Radar
 
The sense of urgency bit into Izaak's shoulder like a blood-crazed shark to an injured animal. The central tent was brimmed, not simply with Demetra and Antonas - the Voivode's loyal hands, but the Imperial soldiers seconded to the oss mage's necrotic hordes. The serried row of soldiers stood in a half-circle before the exit flap of the tent, watching Izaak beyond the stratagem table, maps and manuscripts strew over its surface. None spoke, the howl of the Desert outside the only conversation between them. His helm shifted, its beetle-crest gleamed lifelessly in the thin strips of light that pierced into the tent. He gazed upon their faces, finding them almost uniform in their features. Taut, dry, gaunt, haggard and sore of various degrees. The infernal heat of the Gantar's pitiless plains made Izaak sweat in his bone-plated armour, grating on his skin, the salty droplets even agitated the borders of the iron lattice on his chest, plaguing Izaak with more discomfort. He inclined his head, features inscrutable behind his black helm. The assembly straightened up, their grips tighten, and eyes forward.

"Endure until nightfall, then launch the assault." Izaak began, voice harried, but leveled and cut through the air like a blade against whetstone. "Have the undead hordes in the front, soldiers will be interspersed between them, but most trail close behind. Antonas," He looked at the knight. "Prepare your swiftest and stealthiest men with the tainted water, they shall attempt to distribute and poison as much as possible. Without detection, no witnesses." Antonas leaned off the thick, support pole. He saluted, rapping twice on his breastplate, metal striking metal. "Your will be done, my Lord."

Izaak balled his gauntlets, the wicked talons scraping the gnarled table's rough surface, a few of the soldiers winced from the sound. "Rest for now, recuperate as much as possible before the attack. Rotate sentries, if my observations are to be believed, Kolthix's first offensive has been repelled, they may be more vigilant and could even send out scouting parties." The Voivode gestured to a rough landmark of where the attack had occurred, before rounding the table and moving to the tent's flap. The imperial soldiers parted to either side, while Demetra followed closely behind. "I shall assist in preparations," Izaak said aloud, before gesturing to his mage-lieutenant. "have one of your novitiates inform Kolthix that we will be launching a night raid on the city." Demetra bowed her cowled head, her black hair hung down. "Would you wish to coordinate with the shade-lord?" "If he so wishes, but we will attack regardless."

K0mori K0mori (Attack during the night, attempt to spread the tainted water).
 
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The Horde surrounding the Vestati delegation grew quiet as Zavastria made his demand known to all: Adanach's location. Their eyes studied each member of the delegation with intentions hidden to the newcomers; confident smirks, lascivious grins, and hateful glares pervaded among the visages of the Horde, but there lacked a unified front overall. They all looked upon them in silence until a distant voice called for them, laced with wisdom and authority.

The delegation watched as the barbarians in front of them made way for an old, wizened man whose blind eyes gazed straight towards the Voiceless Knight. Madanach, the Great Druid in Adanach's army, walked towards the Vestati without any need to feel for his surroundings with his staff. He knew who were in front of him, and he knew who among them was the strongest and the only one worth talking to in that moment.

"A divine being, of great power, graces our lands with thy presence. Yet, ye does not inspire wisdom from those beneath them... despite possessing a divine soul." muttered the druid as he looked at the Voiceless, paying no heed to Zavastria or Ystria. "Unless, it's yer own choice to not guide these misbegotten souls ye've been travelin' with." For the first time, Madanach looked at Zavastria, but his eyes seemed to pierce beyond the physical. It felt as though that the Druid's eyes were gazing into the Vestati's soul itself. "Ye arrive with pleasant winds, for yer about to witness a ritual of kind. However, I must ask of ye to remain here, guarded... as the rest of the tribe prepares for the ritual."

Before the Vestati crusader could protest this, the Druid raised his hand and moved the wispy, clouded orbs towards Zavastria. "I shall not hear otherwise, ye will take this opportunity to set up yer camp near the chiefs. I shall come and get ye when the ritual is ready." Madanach turned without any chance of a rebuttal, as he and the rest of the delegation watched the tribe finish their current activities to then depart out of the camp. As instructed by the ancient druid, the delegation took the opportunity to set up near Adanach's tent - which was twice as large as any of the tents in the encampment. When they finished, there were only a few souls wandering about, those being the ones guarding it and the delegation itself.

As the sun set and a full moon rose to paint the sky, the Vestati could hear wolves howling in the distance... or was it something else? A pack of wild beasts, singing to the moon, asking for a blessing from a deity so unrelated to them. Madanach approached from the darkness, now wearing a wooden mask depicting some tribal deity, to hide his wizened face. "Come." he muttered, "Yer about to witness the birth of wolflings..." A magical light engulfed his staff as he walked from the delegation, guiding them through the darkness towards the ritual being conducted.

Whatever outspoken thoughts the delegation had of their treatment thus far would have to wait longer, as they were forced to once again remain silent and obey the commanding voice of the wizened, imperfect vessel that had been their host thus far. There was great power within his frail body, creating a stark contrast that only raised questions. Who was this druid? A sorcerer of some sort? Or a cleric of ancient, tribal deities of these lands? Whatever the case, they were to obey him for the time being until they met Adanach.



Following the druid, the delegation made their way towards the source of the cacophonous hollering that had pierced the air. Seeing it in person, the Vestati could witness members of the Horde surrounding a tall, mighty tree; the bark was painted over with blue that glowed in the dark, illuminating the scenery that was an orgy of music and body. Orcs, goblins, beastment, and men fought, revelled, and howled like wolves - donning skins on their heads - and painted their bodies with woad and the same paint that plastered the tree. In one moment, they made love before quickly delving back into chaotic fighting and revelry; all the while, women dressed in white danced to the moon goddess as the goblin bards played their instruments to their own deity. It was chaos in every respect, and they were loving every moment of it.

As they reacted to the ritual surrounding them, they watched a towering woman whose naked body was glowing with the same paint as the tree approach them. Her stature was the same in height as the Voiceless, and her glowing yellow eyes looked down upon the Vestati beneath her with curiosity. "We knew that you would arrive soon. Perhaps, you arriving this very day is a blessing from the Gods." she said, her booming voice not drowned by the maddening chaos surrounding her. "This is a ritual of war, for we will become wolves in the night. some of us will be blessed by the god Blaidd, and be given the powers of a wolf. But most of us will only be granted his strength in the coming battles." She then looked over her shoulder as another towering figure approached the delegation.

His features were completely masked beneath the massive pale skull of a dire wolf, his nude body covered in the same glowing paint. Were it not for human complexion, the Vestati would have mistaken him for one of the many beastmen of the Horde. "...I always wondered." muttered Adanach, as his green eyes glowed through eyes sockets of the skull - likely a byproduct of the ritual itself. "When I watched your master and your people back in the capital, I wondered... what is inside these decorated armors." He said as he gently tapped Ystrias' breastplate. "I've always heard conflicting stories." he then muttered as his wolfish eyes looked down at both Zavastria and Ystria. "The peasants said that beanath all that metal, ye were nothing but monstrous beings. Sharp fangs and clawed hands, with horns sticking out yer sickly pale hair..."

He took a moment to look at the Voiceless, as if thinking the old crusader looked like that beneath his armor.

"...but then I heard tales of immense beauty and grace. So divine and magical, where it has driven men insane." Adanach began to prey on the two Vestati, walking around them in a circle. His intense green eyes looked into the dark slits of their helmets, confident and unintimidated by whatever divine powers they might possess. "So tell me, little Vestati... what lay beneath that armor?" he said with a grin, before laughing as the music and hollering grew even louder.
 
The three Vestati crusaders followed the wizened form of the masked druid, Madanach, through the shadows of the darkened camp, moving with the grace of phantoms. Unlike the warmth of the natural splendor around them, of horns and antlers and furs amid all manner of pelts and rustic lodgings adorned with bone, the crusaders looked as out of place as they felt. Zavastria and Ystria concealed themselves within the shawls that adorned their bodies, concealing their runic plate; yet whereas Ystria melted into the shadows from the ebon void of her black cloth, Zavastria utilized all manner of colored cloth that symbolized the honor of his house - golds and blues, whites and crimson. Silver tassels swung from the embroidered hems, strung up with gilt cords that shimmered beneath every angle of light, be it from the druid's staff, the glow of the moon, or the flickering of torches.

Only the Voiceless seemed... accustomed to the surroundings. While his armor was clearly ancient and sparsely decorated, the bladed wings upon his back conjured the image of a hellish creature that had crawled out from the void, or perhaps descended from the sky, and was now stalking prey in the dead of night. While his younger kin looked more like a lost nobleman and a novice assassin, the Voiceless possessed the sheer gravitas of a creature of immense power, born through a confidence of quietude that required no flare or announcement.

They simply were, primordial as the earth beneath them or the moon above. Their existence within the world was like the ink of a painting having bled into reality.

Ahead of them, the growing uproar of whatever was happening captured the minds of Zavastria and Ystria. Whereas the former cursed beneath his breath the crude nature of these barbarians, Ystria could feel a heated rush in her veins, the flicker of an ancestral instinct that reminded her of crusades and visitations she had never witnessed but had only heard about. The Vestati had been created as enforcers to be sent to realms beyond, to all manner of worlds to observe and, when demanded, act with the authority of their deity as directed. When they had wings, they would fly from the very sky itself, descending with the beauty of doves or the fury of hawks. The innate scars on her back - a feature all post-rebellion Vestati were born with despite never once knowing the sublime freedom of wings - began to ache in the most wretched manner, her body crying out for a past that had been eradicated from their very being. Only the momentary presence of the Voiceless, striding behind her, seemed to sooth this ache.

And once they arrived at the grounds of the bizarre ritual centering around a tremendous tree, glowing with the essence of the woad painted upon it, the three Vestati watched in motionless silence.

"[Anarchy... chaos... the work of imperfection....]" Zavastria spoke allowed, his voice weak. His fists were clenched together and he swayed, ever so slightly, upon his gilded sabatons. His head spun in ever direction as he took on one wonder after the other, uncertain of where to focus as so much was occurring all at once. The endless blending of bodies in fighting and ecstasy, surrendered in abject worship to spirits and deities he neither knew nor understood. The music made him dizzy, as if each instrument had been wrought to tear apart his refinement. It was like he was a candelabra forged in gold now sat before the rage of a great inferno. Pretty as he stood now, time would assuredly tear him down.

The appearance of the large woman clad in nothing but the majestic glowing paint stole their attention. The younger pair watched her wearily, and when she spoke of a god named Blaidd, all three looked upon the sky as if in reflex. Zavastria and Ystria made esoteric gestures over their chests as if in supplication... or protection from the unseen. Only the Voiceless raised his head to the sky with little movement other than the slightest tilt of his head, his gaze locked upon the stars in a manner of stoic defiance.

It seemed a relief, then, that another figure appeared to them from the twirling darkness where it was impossible to tell where one body began and the other stopped. Adanach could immediately sense the slightest attachment to his mask - the eerie yet beautiful skull of a dire wolf - the Vestati showed, looking upon him more as equal than as oddity. The brilliant glow of his emerald eyes through the sockets were at odds to the fathomless empty depths behind the Vestati facemasks. It felt, in that moment, as if two aspects of the natural world were perched upon the edge of a coin.

Ystria did not react as Adanach gently tapped one hand upon her armor, a gesture that was reserved only by kin or friend lest it be taken as an insult, for she was too enraptured in the anarchy that had devolved the world around them. But the words Adanach spoke seemed to strike a mixture of fear, anger, and indignation in the two youngest Vestati who were uncertain of the insinuations woven into the chieftain's words. "You speak of decorated armor... these are our soulmasks!" Zavastria cried out, his voice nearly lost in the noise. Even Ystria, as she spoke, sounded weary. "It is... too dangerous... to say such things beneath an open sky, warrior," she said, not knowing who it was she spoke to. "You will invite... its eyes...."

"No."
This word seemed to emerge from everywhere and nowhere all at once, and indeed could have been mistaken for the groan of a great oak or the roar of stone upon stone. Both Zavastria and Ystria snapped their heads towards the Voiceless, who stood with their face still canted upwards, empty eyes locked upon the moon. In the myriad tangle of woad, torches, bonfires, magical lights, and the very lunar glow itself, the Voiceless' bladed wings sparkled like a thousand stars. "A blessed moon looks upon us this night. Speak without fear."

It seemed ages before either of the younger Vestati could speak, both drawn in my the chaotic world around them and the near-miracle it was to hear the ancient crusader speak. At last, Ystria was the first to regain her tongue to speak, looking between Adanach and Bjorga. "You have already spoken as if you have seen us," she said tentatively. "It is said many have fallen before us in equal measure to our blade and beauty. I know not those with horns... but we are fanged so that we may tear out the throats of those who slight us, in the times before the Rebellion."

"Our beauty is not fit for mortal eyes,"
Zavastria said, a sneer hidden in his words. "We are immaculate. We are the marble of infinity. No barbarian could be blessed to see our bare flesh, nor could they withstand it if they did."
 
"Ah, compliments to the arrangements. I assume the temple perhaps will help with the projection?" He opts to voice his theory, always enjoying finding new little tricks for the application of magic.

"Yes, this temple is quite suitable for ritual by design, but we have also sought to strengthen its connection with the great temple in Vacium, where General Sergius has taken station this day."

The robed figure led Estro into the temple through two heavy oak doors, bringing him into a darkened and surprisingly cool passage which led to the central chamber, a round room with a large, vaulted dome. In the center, a shaft of light fell on a painted marble statue of the god, Juva, which had apparently been constructed here decades ago if the wear to the paint and body from the elements was any indication. Numerous small offerings, written prayers, and burning candles and incense pots were placed around the statue's sandaled feet. The mixtures of smells here was exceptionally pleasant, as the temple workers ensured that the sacrificial offerings would be to the god's liking.

To Estro, however, there was another sensation which grew stronger as he approached; as the robed man had explained before, the architecture of the room seemed to stabilize the natural forces present in all things into a sort of equilibrium. It followed the same principles that court wizards of Canar would employ while creating a sanctum for magical practice. As Estro stood and appreciated the thoughtfulness of his surroundings, a few of the temple workers placed a chair in the shadows just outside the statue's illuminated radius, and then at roughly arm's length on either side, placed an arcane device- they consisted of a shaft with a small brass plate at the top. The disc was embedded with runes and gemstones, and, amusingly, Estro noted that the craftsmanship wasn't just fine, it was probably excessive for what the Civicerians were trying to achieve here.

Soon, brilliantly, but not unexpectedly, a ghostly projection began to form in the chair, visible thanks to the low light of the temple. A man of about 40 sat with his fingers intertwined, elbows resting on the armrests. He seemed more frail than one would expect of a general. Although his entire form was bathed in blue light and was thus monochrome, it was hard not to imagine that his hair had already gone fully gray. His eyes seemed quite wise, and he smiled as he doubtlessly began to notice his counterpart's form from his position in Vacium, or wherever he really was that day.

"...The Wizard of Zo," he said, his voice a ghostly echo, "I'm pleased that you have arrived safely. I cannot see you yet, but I can hear your approach."

As he spoke, the temple workers arrived with a chair for Estro to sit in, once again positioning the ornate arcane instruments on either side so that he might match the general's preparations.
 
"...The Wizard of Zo," he said, his voice a ghostly echo, "I'm pleased that you have arrived safely. I cannot see you yet, but I can hear your approach."

As he spoke, the temple workers arrived with a chair for Estro to sit in, once again positioning the ornate arcane instruments on either side so that he might match the general's preparations.

"And the Man of the Mountain, what a delight to meet someone of such skill and capability," Estro said with a chuckle as he moves to take his seat. He takes a moment to adjust his robes and then flashes a smile to the man before him. "At least I assume so, but your reputation precedes you. I'll assume whoever I am addressing, real or subordinate, that it will get the same results. I must applaud your care in matters again."

Estro looks upon the man with thoughtful expression more as he started to mentally pick apart the image before him. Nothing could be trusted, but the man was established and experienced. He likely held a seat in the Senate and probably had some line to the Dominus back in the capital. In either case, he was entrusted with Bolia which was important for two reasons now. Control of the resource production which likely meant he was quite wealthy from his slice of the income he likely took and that he was also to be the commander of the now cancelled invasion that the Dominion had been preparing to further expand its colonial interests.

"Compliments aside though, I would hate to see resentment boil between the Empire and Dominion. I'm sure the Dominus and Senators were... put off by the Empire's recent efforts and displays of its own military interests. I am aware though, that perhaps we could reach some sort of arrangements that would still suit the Dominion's needs even if the Empire is acquiring territories. Trade and flow of resources is obviously such a thing. War demands materials and the Dominion and its merchants are now positioned to profit from our appetite for supplies and items to sustain campaigns abroad," Estro said as he drums his gloved fingers thoughtfully.

"I'm sure that's not optimal, nor what you were originally positioned in Bolia for considering the impressive buildup and your reputation. Yet as Imperial Wizard, I hope to make this offer at least something to consider. Along with perhaps letting those pitiable refugees pass. We don't need them clogging our lines and I'm sure the Dominion can find some use for additional bodies when there is to be increased demand for trade between our lands?" Estro arches a brow but finally holds his piece. He'd laid out his concerns and interests to seem ever more the man intending to keep the Empire running like any good Imperial Wizard would as compared to his far deeper and more insidious plans for the Dominion. He wondered if this man before him could be turned, but he might be a true patriot. Civicerians could be rather determined when they chose to be and he knew this man would bloody the legions of the Empire greatly if he didn't set about undermining, corrupting and dismantling his forces.
 
Zavastria's words visibly amused the barbarian chieftain, whose booming laughter surmounted the cacophony of noises of hedonism surrounding them all. But the longer the chieftain laughed, the less human it began to sound; shifting from a maddened laughter to a rabid, feral cackling. The unnatural glow of emerald from his eyes stared straight into Zavastria's eyes gaps, into the Vestati's very core. Adanach began to circle around Zavastria and Ystria once more, sometimes sparing a glance at the Voiceless as he passed in front of the ancient warrior.

"Oh, yer funny little Vestati..." he muttered with an animalistic growl, before grabbing the angel by the neck from behind much to his initial ire. But not matter how hard he struggled, the superhuman strength of Adanach dwarfed his own considerably - and was now at the mercy of the heathen. "Take a look, little Vestati..." said the barbarian as he forced Zavastria to look at the ritual surrounding them. "LOOK!" he shouted with a maddened grin plastered upon his face. "To me, this is true beauty! One people, a strong people, celebrating the gods and good health, preparing for death and glory..."

Adanach then turned Zavastria around to look into his face, still obscured beneath the direwolf skull, but his eyes growing wider and ever more piercing into the Vestati itself. "We are truly immaculate, we are natural! Like you, little angel." Adanach's face grew ever closer until the skull pocked the nose of Zavastria's helmet. "Don't forget yer place, because yer not amongst yer kin no more. Yer in the land of a thousand gods, of a thousand peoples, who are free and one with nature. Ye will abide to me, because only the strong rule here." As if to mock him, Zavastria could feel Adanach lifting him slightly. "...and yer clearly not."

The Vestati was placed back onto the ground, before being gently pushed towards Ystria. But Adanach did not care for what either of them had to say in the moment, as his focus then shifted to the Voiceless - who seemed not only strong, but also aware of the mystical nature of the Druadach and the power of its people. "You... you on the other hand... I like ya." he said as he looked into the Voiceless' eyes. The incredible power of the ancient crusader need not be displayed, as Adanach could practically feel it in the air itself. And, perhaps, the Voiceless was even stronger than the warlord himself... and that was worthy of respect.

"Stay... join our ritual, allow Blaidd to grant ye his blessing. Feel the fury of the wolf flow through yer veins." Adanach then said, before looking down at Ystria and Zavastria. "Perhaps ya two should join us as well... there might be something yer good at..." Adanach gave off a lascivious grin as he made the implication clear, before walking away cackling like a mad beast.



The three Vestati watched as the chieftain and his wife walked away towards the great tree where Madanach was now preparing various herbal and fungal mixtures. The music that the Goblin bards played with such devotion seemed to grow even louder now, and the moon priestesses who danced with unnatural fervor before in honor of the goddess now began to sing. Their voices were so hauntingly beautiful that they made some of the people participating in the ritual crawl on all fours - roaring and howling to the moon like the beasts they emulated - their glowing eyes looking directly into the body of the goddess above in the sky. Their howls a desperate plead for her son Blaidd to bless them with the true form of a wolf or beast.

The ritual continued despite the fact nobody but Adaanach looked at the chief druid as he gutted a dead wolf and looked into the entrails of the beast. Madanach then shouted an incantation, which made the tree glow even brighter than it did before, and caused the people nearby to grow even wilder in their acts. He then proceeded to remove the liver of the dead beast, cutting it into several pieces for select warriors to swallow. The first recipient was Adanach, who chewed on the raw liver happily as blood streamed from his mouth. Other followed suit, the same ones who chanted to the moon like crazed beasts.

That's when the demeanor of the participants changed; no longer were they lost in their own body or craving the blood of others. They looked to Madanach as he chanted the call of Blaidd and asked for the blessing of the Moon Goddess. The Vestati witnessed as Adanach and the others who ate the beast's liver were twitching in place, their eyes glowing brighter than ever before. Their bodies shifted and contorted in unnatural ways, some like Adanach laughed and chanted alongside the druids, but when two of the participants fell to their knees their voices turned into excruciating pain. The other participants surrounded them, chanting even louder, with twisted smiles spreading on their faces as the two barbarians - a man and a woman - started to howl. Not as humans, but as real beasts.

Upon hearing that monstrous roar, the crowd became wild again and chanted in almost perfect unison. Calling for Blaidd, the Father of Wolves, calling for the Moon Goddess - Queen of the Night - and for the Horned God, the King Amongst all Beasts. They were thanking the gods, in their own savage way, for granting the participants with such blessings.

Adanach's glowing eyes looked at the two barbarians with utter admiration as they began to change in front of him. Their faces elongated into snouts, their hands grew claws and their legs broke and twisted in unnatural ways. They shed away their hides to reveal furry dark manes, and eyes glowing as bright as Adanachs, for they shared the blessing of the Gods. The only difference being that Blaidd picked these two to be part of his moonlit pack. "We will make the Father of Wolves proud!" shouted Adanach as he pet one of the werewolves as he would a dog. When the now transformed werewolves rose from the ground, they let out a monstrous roar together that was joined shortly thereafter by the other participants. Their shouts almost matched the same feral ferocity of their now transformed brethren.
 
Zavastria's rage and indignation was lost to the howling of the night. Stoic as his mask remained, his true face beneath was flushed hot, burning with the same intensity of the bonfires. Never had he been treated in such a way, nor had he ever expected to be. For a foreign barbarian to lay hands upon him - to lift him! - as if he was nothing more than a mere sack of vegetables to be carried, it was an affront not only to the greatness of the Vestati but a violation of the natural order itself. His gauntlets creaked with the pressure of his trembling fists. But before he could even contemplate striking that wretched barbarian, a firm hand latched onto his arm like a vice. Ystria leaned in, her head close to the side of his. "[I know you were about to do something very stupid,]" she said, straining to be heard over the roar of the tribal ritual.

The Vestati knight growled, managing at last to wrest his arm free from his sword-sister's grip. He spun about and stood before the Voiceless, the venerable ancient crusader standing motionless, every mote of light dancing over his wings and across his soulmask like a wicked circus of illumination, each shadow dancing and twirling and twisting with the energy of the unknown madness driving the barbarians ever onwards. "[Are you not our elder? Why do you not act? That fiend touched me! Where is your honor, the pride?"] Zavastria yelled.

With an almost inquisitive inclination of his head, the Voiceless at last seemed to recognize that a figure was now stood before him. When that endless gaze was fixed upon Zavastria, the younger Vestati had the credit not to remain petulant. He bowed his head in supplication, but looked back up quickly, the ferocity evident in his motion.

["Wolves like to test boundaries,]" the Voiceless said, a statement with the certainty and weight of a rushing waterfall, eternal even as it carved away the stone beneath its turbulent surface. Then, as if judging another thought, the Voiceless nodded downwards to his side. His longsword, one of merely several weapons on his person, had been drawn and was resting with the tip upon the top of his sabaton in a common gesture of armed neutrality - neither threatening nor intending to be caught unaware. No one had seen him draw the blade, neither the Vestati nor Adanach. ["... the only wound to be suffered is your pride. If it is fear in your heart, capture it. Form the cast and fill it with hot iron. The chieftain declared us to be in a land of a thousand gods and a thousand people,"] the Voiceless said, demonstrating the most amount of movement he had performed all night by leaning forwards a mere inch towards Zavastria. ["Our people have seen a thousand gods and brought ruin to a thousand peoples. We nearly killed one. You are Vestati. Show your superiority with something more than tears."]

The Voiceless knelt upon the ground and gestured for Zavastria to do the same. He then spoke briefly with Ystria, who left the tribal ritual only to return a moment later, carrying a small wooden box and canvas-wrapped sack; within the latter, a three-stringed instrument with a triangular body, the wood of which was rich with lacquered darkness and pitted with the passage of many years. Wordlessly, he passed the instrument to Zavastria, who merely stared at it as if having never seen it before. Moments passed before he, after taking a deep breath, began plucking away a Vestati tune.

On the other side of the Voiceless, without the need for supervision, Ystria had sat out the wooden box and the items within - small porcelain cups and utensils for the purpose of creating a beverage, warm or cold. Yet there was no water, no spice, no ingredients to be mixed and served to be drunk with relief. The Voiceless with Ystria as his assistant merely went through the slow, methodical gestures of the process as if they were indeed preparing tea or coffee. The entire display was... haunting, for it became apparent to any viewer that the Vestati did so not out of demonstration, but that this itself was the ritual, an expression of a lost art for they could not remove their soulmasks beneath the sky. To perform this slow and quiet ritual in such stark contrast of the barbarians obtaining such a divine blessing from their own gods who were clearly watching was a cruel remainder that the Vestati, more than anyone else, knew what they had lost and resented it - but did not allow it to defeat them.

"[You play a duelist's song,"] the Voiceless noted, not looking at Zavastria as he cradled an empty porcelain cup in two hands, a fragile item cradled gracefully between chainmail, leather, and plate made for the brutality of war. Zavastria continued to pluck the strings of the instrument with much passion, though his tone remained grave. ["You said to demonstrate our superiority. I am."]

Now having established themselves, the Vestati watched and observed from within their own little island of calm. Ystria produced a scribe's set and began to sketch, with great skill, the scene before them despite not a single body remaining motionless; except, perhaps, for the magnificent tree and the moon above. Zavastria continued to channel his rage into the music, a single musciain fighting back against the symphony of drums and howling, never able to pierce through the madness but dancing in tandem nonetheless, a duelist on the backfoot yet on their feet regardless.

The Voiceless watched, as he always did. Through the haze of smoke and movement he saw it all without the need to crane his head about to take in every detail. He felt, heard, saw, and experienced the world before him as if he had always been apart of it, the moss of an ancient stone standing witness to a thousand years of nature living and dying before it.

His silent gaze watched Adanach most of all. For the chieftain, howling away with the fury and energy bestowed upon him by the rapturous intensity of Blaidd, would also realize, with the instincts of the wolf he embodied, that he was being watched by a predator from afar, one that was so accustomed and immutable that it did not hide itself nor stalk but merely sat where it was, flanked by two youths overcome with new experiences. It was a gaze that was without threat yet entirely embodied by the implicitness of violence. It was the look of a judge, an executioner of the divine's will and, had history been kind, an executioner of the divine. There was never a possibility of peace within its soul, but with two hands clasped to an empty, gentle porcelain cup decorated in the crystal-blue script of a miniature garden, it was as peaceable as it could ever be.
 
"Compliments aside though, I would hate to see resentment boil between the Empire and Dominion. I'm sure the Dominus and Senators were... put off by the Empire's recent efforts and displays of its own military interests. I am aware though, that perhaps we could reach some sort of arrangements that would still suit the Dominion's needs even if the Empire is acquiring territories. Trade and flow of resources is obviously such a thing. War demands materials and the Dominion and its merchants are now positioned to profit from our appetite for supplies and items to sustain campaigns abroad," Estro said as he drums his gloved fingers thoughtfully.

"I'm sure that's not optimal, nor what you were originally positioned in Bolia for considering the impressive buildup and your reputation. Yet as Imperial Wizard, I hope to make this offer at least something to consider. Along with perhaps letting those pitiable refugees pass. We don't need them clogging our lines and I'm sure the Dominion can find some use for additional bodies when there is to be increased demand for trade between our lands?"

The General sat quietly and merely gave a knowing smile as Estro expressed some doubt that he was speaking to the real Man on the Mountain. As he laid his case out, however, the General's expression grew more attentive, as if he were searching for the hidden motives behind each new idea fielded by the wizard. Estro painted a picture of an Empire consuming far more than it could produce, hungry for the resources of its neighbors. If Sergius was a well-read man, he would know that production and crop yields had fallen considerably over the past decade under the oppressive yoke of the Emperor's leadership. Perhaps he would conclude that the Empire's sudden aggression was a desperate attempt to seize what it could no longer produce itself, and the trade profits would be quite good.

Or perhaps, Estro worried, the General would instead have taken note of the Empire's habit of stockpiling resources away from the people, to ensure its armies would be fed and supplied through many seasons, even in the case of drought and disorder. If that were the case, then Estro's attempts to secure connections to the Dominion's markets might be taken as a ploy to create dependency, and to begin the presumably long process of turning it into a satellite of Saarus.

His eyes subtly twitched at the mention of the refugees.

"There are many things that interest me about your premise and your proposal," he replied, politely. "For instance, I have heard of many cases in which the Empire has subjugated, enslaved, or killed its new subjects upon expansion, but to allow refugees to flee en masse... That is an interesting turn." For a moment, the General's eyes narrowed as he smiled again, as if he had already reached a certain conclusion, but for now, it wasn't clear what that was. "Maybe after all these years, Saarus finally has a culture worth displacing others over, rather than absorbing them. Civiceria is quite the same."

"Had we taken Bolia, we would have been tasked with the great effort of enslaving and relocating the local population, in order to ensure that they wouldn't rise up against us. Perhaps we would have offered a great number of laborers to our neighbors in the Empire in exchange for peace and trade," he mused, his smirk fading in favor of a more neutral, contemplative expression. "Given our... reversed roles, I believe the wise thing to do would be to accept your overture. We'll allow these refugees to cross the border, but in an orderly fashion, administered by my forces. I will also ensure a favorable status for Saarus in trade, and I will expect the same for Civicerian merchants in your ports."

Now seeming relaxed and confident, the General added, "One last thing- I would not be concerned with the preparedness of my legions. What opportunities we lost in Bolia, we may rediscover them on our eastern borders. One doesn't learn language to read a single book, nor study the blade to prepare for a single foe. We are, as always, prepared for all frontiers," he said, his tone resembling that of a man far beyond his years.
 

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