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A Conversation on the Ramparts

StoriesbyJurixe Apr 4th, 2013 38 Never
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  1. She hated this city.
  2.  
  3. Sprawling, messy, chaotic, full of drunkards and beggars and lepers. Intelligence a scarce commodity among its inhabitants, discipline a foreign concept. Drama and complaints almost every other day, petty infighting and ego-waving at the smallest opportunity. City guards that found any excuse to molest passerbys, vagrants that regurgitated cheap liquor onto your shoes, and to top it off, all ruled by the insane, misguided followers of a mad God.
  4.  
  5. How could they -stand- it here?
  6.  
  7. Evidently they must have found some way, for they'd left for this city, hadn't they? A decade had passed and still they remained, even beginning to rise through the ranks - not altogether surprising, given their experience.
  8.  
  9. They were in good company as well, she thought, recalling with slight bitterness the list of former prominent figures that had made the leap before them.
  10.  
  11. It had been many years now, and she knew it was foolish to dwell on such things - but try as she might, the bitterness was still there, festering black in her heart.
  12.  
  13. Anguish.
  14.  
  15. Resentment.
  16.  
  17. And underneath all that, if she was willing to admit it to herself...fear.
  18.  
  19. She closed her eyes for a split second, exhaling softly as she leaned against the cool brick wall of a shop. Busy, bustling Central Market was but a few steps away, and the cacophony of shouting and haggling was almost unbearable - another reason she disliked this city, so much -noise- - but rather than trying to fight it, she let it wash over her as she cleared her mind of thought and emotion, trying to calm herself.
  20.  
  21. Mhaldor had endured worse things than their departure, and would continue to survive. Two individuals were nothing.
  22.  
  23. Not even if they had been the mortal representatives of the Twin Lords, decorated war generals and leaders of various Mhaldorian organisations; no, not even then.
  24.  
  25. The face of a stern, battle-scarred Xoran surfaced in her mind's eye, clearly a veteran of war, yet the emotion within his lamplike eyes was strangely soft - at odds with his rugged appearance.
  26.  
  27. Empathy.
  28.  
  29. "Trust me," he'd said.
  30.  
  31. She did.
  32.  
  33. She did...
  34.  
  35. ...didn't she?
  36.  
  37. Then again, she thought bitterly, hadn't they said just the same things?
  38.  
  39. A shadow moved upon the battlements of the gleaming city walls, startling her out of her brooding thoughts. Carefully, she eased her head out of the alley she was in, glancing to the left and right.
  40.  
  41. Deserted.
  42.  
  43. Without a sound, she darted light-footed from the concealing shadows, crossing the street in a few bounds. In a flash, she was up the stone staircase opposite that led up to the ramparts, keeping close to the walls as she glanced about for cover.
  44.  
  45. Up here, the ramparts bent outwards to form a bulwark that overlooked the open approach to the gates along the Prelatorian Highway. Those standing at this point could see quite a distance over the highway, or over the city itself, depending on which way they were facing. She could see why they liked it here - it provided an excellent vantage point to watch for enemies, similar to the Mhaldorian guardhouses that had been their haunt of old.
  46.  
  47. The sun was beginning to set over the horizon, no clouds in the sky to obscure its fiery orange glow as it sank into the distant mountains. She shunned the blazing rays, choosing instead to seclude herself within the long shadows cast by a nearby guardhouse as she pressed herself against the wall.
  48.  
  49. She was not -technically- an enemy of the city, a status she'd somehow managed to maintain even though the cities were somewhat hostile towards one another; still, she preferred to avoid drawing too many suspicious glances. She eyed a group of chatting guards nearby warily. They seemed to be taking no notice of her, if they even knew she was there at all, but - just in case - she edged a little further away from them.
  50.  
  51. Tilting her head slightly to peer around the guardhouse, she saw him - a dark, robed figure, standing near the edge of the ramparts. He had his back to her, but she'd know him anywhere - even if he dressed up as a Cyrenian bellydancer.
  52.  
  53. Of course, the huge black stallion with mane and tail of flickering green flame pawing restively next to him was somewhat of a clue, too.
  54.  
  55. Here she hesitated, chewing unconsciously on her lower lip as she debated with herself. She'd come to talk to him, hadn't she? But really, what was there to talk about? He'd left a decade ago. Shouldn't she have talked to him then? Why now, instead?
  56.  
  57. She had no answers to her own questions, but the impulse that had carried her here from the Northern Vashnars was insistent. For whatever reason, she needed to speak to him, to know that there was -some- method, however misguided, to his madness and that he hadn't simply been possessed by the Lord of Oblivion and maybe, such a childish maybe, he'd simply made a mistake-
  58.  
  59. She'd almost put a foot out when another figure appeared at the top of the stairs, startling her and causing her to quickly shrink back into the shadows.
  60.  
  61. Damn Ashtani, why couldn't they just give her -one- moment of peace?
  62.  
  63. Tamping her frustration down, she settled in to wait, leaning against the wall of the guardhouse. She was, after all, a Naga - waiting was nothing new to her, although no less tiresome.
  64.  
  65. Her grey eyes flicked inquisitively over the newcomer, taking him in as he approached the figure at the ramparts. A human. Slender build, blue-green eyes, dark brown hair and slight stubble- hmm. She'd seen him before...
  66.  
  67. The robed person turned as he drew near, inclining his head slightly in polite acknowledgement. The human nodded in response, his lips quirking upwards a fraction as he spoke.
  68.  
  69. "Here's a sight I never thought I'd see."
  70.  
  71. His baritone voice triggered the familiar shock of recognition in her, followed by a flash of recollection - standing silently in the shadows upon a patio behind a bustling alehouse, straining to catch snippets of conversation, glancing at the slight Tsol'aa beside her - the sudden flash of discovery, narrowed suspicion, butterflies, a hastily stifled laugh -
  72.  
  73. She shook her head slightly, trying to clear her thoughts. Memories of a time long past, and the important thing was, she knew who he was now.
  74.  
  75. Tilting her dark head, she poured more effort into listening, concentrating hard.
  76.  
  77. "...everybody's values erode with time. And they are washed downstream to Ashtan," the dark figure - now revealed to be a dwarf - responded.
  78.  
  79. Hearing the sardonic note of laughter in his smooth voice, her grey eyes slid shut for a moment, feeling a little sick inside. Had he really changed that much?
  80.  
  81. A wry chuckle. "Well, then I have the dubious honour to welcome you to the Disenfranchised Former Religious Leaders Club."
  82.  
  83. The dwarf beamed broadly, the expression infused with a wealth of ironic amusement. "A pleasure," he replied with mock courtesy. "Tane should receive the same, if you see him about."
  84.  
  85. Just the mention of his name sent another lance of pain through her, and one hand curled into a fist at her side. It had been years now, and -still- it was as if they'd only left yesterday. She was tired of it.
  86.  
  87. Slightly turned towards her, she saw the human's eyes gleam with humour as he nodded at the dwarf. "It is something of an irony that Ashtan is arguably the most prominent military and cultural force on Sapience right now, given that it has, so often, so very little of its own."
  88.  
  89. Just as well they couldn't see her, she thought, else it would be slightly more difficult for her to roll her eyes.
  90.  
  91. The dwarf reached up to stroke his chin thoughtfully, black linen falling away to reveal a clawed, disfigured hand. "Indeed. Dreadlords and Adikoi, prelates and whatever else," he replied, receiving a nod.
  92.  
  93. "But on average, the citizen is useless," he continued. Lifting his shoulder in a nonchalant shrug, he flashed a mocking smile. "At least there's a lot of them."
  94.  
  95. The human glanced away, running a hand through his hair as he chuckled. "I'm not sure whether to be relieved or offended that very few likely know what an Archprelate is, let alone that I was one."
  96.  
  97. "I'm surprised you still harbour the memory. Martyred and purified prophet of something...something."
  98.  
  99. Only a faintly amused half-smile, this time. "Nothing, really. Made even literally true by the collapse of the Basilica."
  100.  
  101. "If only there were a new chapter to take our minds off that disaster." A sceptical twist of the lips. "But my new testament is comprised mostly of sitting atop the parapets. Such, it seems, is my future in retirement."
  102.  
  103. The former Archprelate turned, clasping his hands behind his back as he faced the parapets contemplatively. "We've both led cities in the past, after a fashion; I'd hardly think each of us would wish that sort of fate on the other again. Still, 'retired' is not a term I'd prefer to use in reference to myself."
  104.  
  105. Green eyes followed him, but the dwarf didn't move from his spot as he shrugged again. "Nobody would, really. Fortunately, there's a realm of folk willing to brand us for us. Retired has a nice ring, really, you should give it another shot."
  106.  
  107. "Oh, I'm sure circumstances will conspire against me, even if all I'd prefer is a nice home and good company somewhere while I ride out the end of the world."
  108.  
  109. This time it was the dwarf who chuckled, his robes shifting slightly. "Nihilism is no less tired than Good or Suffering, unfortunately. It's difficult to claim usefulness when your role is to teach the world the meaning of futility."
  110.  
  111. She held her breath, but his companion's mildly amused expression didn't change. "Well, just because something isn't lasting doesn't mean it isn't worth pursuing."
  112.  
  113. "Perhaps not, but throwing our efforts towards some goal which - as we are expected to accept in the beginning - is an inevitability despite the wishes and actions of mortals seems daft."
  114.  
  115. A slight tilt of the head, not challenging, just bland curiosity. "What else are we going to do?"
  116.  
  117. "We could spend the time between now and oblivion working towards some silver-tongued religion who offers us the slim hope of riches or virgins or undeath or something marvellous like that. Surely that's the wise move, since our backup is a sure thing anyhow."
  118.  
  119. She was torn between the desire to laugh and the desire to roll her eyes - a familiar feeling, when he was around. The man was incorrigible.
  120.  
  121. The sun had set now, darkness falling over the land as the stars winked in the night sky. Luckily, some dedicated soldier had had the foresight to light the torches set in evenly spaced brackets along the city walls, all of them blazing with a steady flame and making it seem almost as bright as day.
  122.  
  123. Apparently taking nightfall as an excuse to abandon any pretense of duty at all, the nearby guards were huddled around a table, beginning a raucous game of dice by flickering torchlight and disrupting her eavesdropping.
  124.  
  125. "...certainly true...pose, ....figured...centuries i-..West...quashed..comfort..."
  126.  
  127. "...nice example...promi...grand...bonus...purging...less-th- ..seful-...way. Exc....doesn't...-ourse."
  128.  
  129. Thoroughly annoyed and unable to make any sense of the snatched words above the enthusiastic yelling and betting, she finally braved herself to move a little closer towards the pair, keeping as close as possible to the wall. Her heart thumped wildly with adrenaline, grey eyes flicking from left to right, but nobody seemed to have noticed.
  130.  
  131. "...many types of strength, and I'd imagine the ability to win favour and avoid routine culling is one such unorthodox example."
  132.  
  133. That was better. She settled in again, listening.
  134.  
  135. The dwarf grinned in amusement, an unfamiliar expression on his normally implacable face. "It might make sense for someone such as myself to fall into the loving arms of a cult who sympathises with my newfound disillusionment - with whom I can link hands and chant prayers of the uselessness of the mortal condition," he replied, earning a smirk from his companion.
  136.  
  137. Horror closed like an icy fist around her heart at his words.
  138.  
  139. He -wouldn't-...
  140.  
  141. "But it does seem a little defeatist."
  142.  
  143. She hissed softly through her teeth in relief, but the shaken feeling lingered.
  144.  
  145. "Oh, disillusionment is hardly useful. It often bears with it a thirst for some mode of vengeance...and that's not taking up the cloth of Nihilism as much as it is bearing witness to another religion, even if it is another form of practice."
  146.  
  147. "You do empathise, though, with the notion that mortals are too incompetent to effect any real change on the outcome. Though the gods haven't shown all that much promise either, really."
  148.  
  149. "I know the futility of raging against the gods, most certainly. They will enjoy Oblivion as much as the next piece of Creation."
  150.  
  151. "Another reason it seems logical to put our eggs in that particular basket."
  152.  
  153. Stop breathing.
  154.  
  155. "...but still, how dull."
  156.  
  157. Breathe.
  158.  
  159. At this rate, he was going to give her a heart attack.
  160.  
  161. An amused chuckle. "Oh, the Cult is many things, but dull?"
  162.  
  163. The dwarf's robes fluttered about him as he waved his deformed hand dismissively. "Don't get me wrong. I'm sure there's plenty of fire. And spice." He laughed even as his human counterpart grimaced, and she flicked her eyes to the sky in a subtle roll, recognising the reference to the popular Ashtani bar. It was a favourite gathering spot of the Nihilists - many of whom were well-known alcoholics.
  164.  
  165. "Too much spice. Not enough fire. But that's...well. Those are more the habits of a few," came the reply.
  166.  
  167. "You only have a few!"
  168.  
  169. "Ah, then a few among a few. Practically nobody. Clearly, the generalisation should be allowed to fade!"
  170.  
  171. Another dismissive wave. "Still, I think we should hold out hope for the virgins and riches and undeath. There's a cloud of essence somewhere underneath another giant rock somewhere."
  172.  
  173. Wavering torchlight painted long shadows across the human's features, but still she could discern the two small, vertical scratches on his forehead. She was also close enough to make out the twinkle in his blue-green eyes as he spoke, albeit with a sardonic hint to his amusement.  "Ah yes, always another cloud of essence, always another rock to lift."
  174.  
  175. "Some under great rocks, others under entire mountains/islands. But each to their own."
  176.  
  177. A lull in the conversation, and she tilted her head upwards. Past midnight now, she thought. Impatience flickered in her heart. Didn't Ashtani need to sleep or something? It would be dawn soon, she would have to return, and her journey here would have been for naught.
  178.  
  179. "Do you find yourself keeping in contact with the West still?"
  180.  
  181. The sudden question caught her off guard, her eyes flicking back reflexively towards the dwarf. What would he say?
  182.  
  183. "With one or two." Unbidden, the image of a familiar-looking, delicately embossed letter surfaced in her mind, but with an effort she pushed it away.
  184.  
  185. A nod. "What do you think of Xaten as Tyrannus?"
  186.  
  187. There was a contemplative expression on the dwarf's features, a peculiar green cast upon them from the daemonic stallion's smouldering mane.
  188.  
  189. "Xaten's an interesting case. He does amazing things, and amazingly stupid things."
  190.  
  191. The human grinned in amusement. "Balance," came the philosophical reply.
  192.  
  193. "Yes. He did great things with the Maldaathi once, and he's just reckless enough to potentially put them back on a path of growth. Which is the sort of person who is alright to give the reins when there's not much more to lose."
  194.  
  195. It stung a little to hear the frank assessment of his former city, but she knew that if there hadn't been at least a degree of truth to his words, she would have felt more outraged.
  196.  
  197. The thought depressed her.
  198.  
  199. "There's considerably less to lose, yes."
  200.  
  201. "He's also a highly controversial figure. His reputation for ruthlessness will help them, both by keeping away the Calidens and Darrans who might see value in defecting. And by keeping Mhaldor's reputation as a cruel/harsh place."
  202.  
  203. The Ashtani arched his eyebrows in brief surprise. "Darran?"
  204.  
  205. "Just an example. That's the difficulty in nursing an organisation back to health - denying the applications. Citizenship is too fluid - and I say that knowing full well the irony."
  206.  
  207. She spent a few satisfying seconds imagining herself giving him her best death glare, unconsciously narrowing her eyes in automatic practice.
  208.  
  209. "Disillusionment is hardly the same as hopping on the winning steed, I should think."
  210.  
  211. Another flash of that irrepressible grin. "Nice when they coincide, though."
  212.  
  213. The sky was beginning to lighten now, shades of pink and gold and blue and grey starting to encroach upon the firmament as the last vestiges of black night began to fade. It would soon be sunrise, and she fidgeted slightly. She hadn't much time left, and who knew how long they were going to continue to talk.
  214.  
  215. A sound startled her, causing her to press instinctively against the wall even though it really made no difference. She turned her head, eyes widening as she caught a glimpse of a large grook standing on the top step of the stairs, rough skin an oddly silver hue. His bulbous blue eyes took in his surroundings with a detached air, and with a shock she recognised the brutal scarring upon his chest.
  216.  
  217. -Tane-?
  218.  
  219. The dwarf flashed the newcomer a smile, and the human turned towards him as well, recognition flickering in his own ocean-hued eyes as he nodded in greeting.
  220.  
  221. "Ah, Tane. Welcome to Ashtan, the Home of Disillusioned Former Religious Leaders," he said lightly.
  222.  
  223. Tane's voice was a low rumble as he approached, taking his place next to the dwarf, who looked especially diminuitive next to him. "Only disillusioned in Mhaldor, not the path I follow."
  224.  
  225. Amusement gleamed in the Ashtani's eyes, but the grook's imposing presence seemed to discourage any further conversation between them as all fell quiet. A special talent of his, she thought wryly.
  226.  
  227. After a few moments of awkward silence, the human apparently gave up on continuing the discussion.
  228.  
  229. "If you'll pardon me." With a flourish of his arm, he bowed politely to the pair and turned towards the staircase, descending with quick steps and disappearing into the milling morning crowd below.
  230.  
  231. With the first of the morning sun's rays peeking over the horizon, lending a gold cast to all it touched, she was nearly out of time. She decided then and there that if she was ever going to talk to them, it would have to be now.
  232.  
  233. Taking a deep breath, she stepped out from the safety of the shadows, blinking a little in the sunlight. As one, both their heads turned towards her; if either was surprised at her appearance, she couldn't tell.
  234.  
  235. Now properly face-to-face with them, waves of complicated emotion rose within her; fury, obedience, despair, respect, betrayal, admiration, all jumbled together in a tangled web that she couldn't even begin to unravel.
  236.  
  237. Without thinking, she opened her mouth to speak. "Gene-"
  238.  
  239. Abruptly, she caught herself mid-sentence.
  240.  
  241. No. He wasn't the General any longer.
  242.  
  243. Her grey eyes flicked from the dwarf to Tane, searching their expressions for - something, she didn't know what - and finally, lowered to the ground.
  244.  
  245. She took a deep breath, trying to suppress the shudder. "Equite. Centurion," she said quietly, the words falling like lead off her tongue, hanging heavy in the air despite their soft utterance.
  246.  
  247. "Jariel," the robed dwarf answered, throwing a scowl towards the muscular grook, who only smirked in answer.
  248.  
  249. Now what? Her mind felt blank. It was still difficult for her to resist her immediate impulse to listen and obey, as they had been her superiors, leaders, mentors and more for decades. She felt like a young Tormented again, standing in front of them and hoping desperately that she hadn't invoked their ire. Unconsciously, she laced her fingers together tightly.
  250.  
  251. "What you said...to the- Orator." Her voice sounded hoarse, as if something was caught in her throat. She swallowed, and tried to continue. "About...values eroding, and-"
  252.  
  253. Cold dread at the mere thought of it being even half true flooded her heart, and words failed her as she pressed her lips together and shook her head slightly, glancing at the ground.
  254.  
  255. Come -on-, Jariel, she thought angrily, trying to rally herself. Don't be such a fool.
  256.  
  257. She tried again. "I...did you mean that...?" A half-whisper was all she could manage to get out, grey eyes flicking beseechingly up to the dwarf's face.
  258.  
  259. The dwarf's brow creased in a slight frown, and she tensed on instinct. "What, exactly?"
  260.  
  261. She inhaled briefly. He wasn't going to make this easy for her, it seemed.
  262.  
  263. "Eventually...everybody's values erode with time."
  264.  
  265. He looked thoughtful, rubbing his chin as he glanced about himself. "Time is one catalyst, sure."
  266.  
  267. The icy sensation within her intensified, and she felt her chest constrict. "But yours, G-" she stumbled again, and hastily corrected herself - "..Equite, please. Are you- do you-..."
  268.  
  269. Feeling the irrational fear beginning to overwhelm her, she took a breath to steady herself. Her throat felt tight and she could barely get the words out, but still she continued in the barest whisper of a voice, "...do you intend to leave the tenets of Suffering behind, and...embrace...Nihilism...?" She pushed her fingers even more tightly together, bracing herself for the answer.
  270.  
  271. She wasn't sure she would be able to handle it.
  272.  
  273. He arched an eyebrow. "Is that what you heard? I certainly said nothing of the sort."
  274.  
  275. She exhaled heavily, letting out a breath she hadn't even known she'd been holding, allowing her shoulders to slump just a little. Thank the Lords.
  276.  
  277. "I had...hoped not, but when you said that first sentence I...I could not be sure," she admitted.
  278.  
  279. He flashed an impish smile. "I said quite clearly that any new religion would offer promises of virgins, riches and eternal life. Oblivion's far from eternal life, and Amaranda's far from..." He paused. "Rich."
  280.  
  281. A faint gleam of reluctant amusement flickered in her eyes. "And virgins?" she couldn't help asking.
  282.  
  283. He glanced at the staircase the human had disappeared down. "Metrane, perhaps."
  284.  
  285. Even Tane grunted at that, and Jariel allowed a soft chuckle to escape her lips, feeling a huge weight lifted off her - although not completely. He still hadn't really answered her.
  286.  
  287. "Do you...intend to turn elsewhere, then? Where spiritual guidance is...concerned?"
  288.  
  289. Blessedly, he shook his head.
  290.  
  291. "The remaining religions are dull." She shut her eyes for a longer second than necessary, the only outward sign of her relief.
  292.  
  293. "Better than Vengeance, of course-" She opened her eyes to find him staring implacably at her - should have known he'd find a way to sneak that in - "..but still, dull."
  294.  
  295. "I do not fault you for your disillusionment." She was surprised to hear the words come from her own lips, but as soon as she said them, she knew they were true. Hadn't she had cause to rage against her own government many a time? "I might have, perhaps, a time ago."
  296.  
  297. The anguish, if she really wanted to be honest with herself, stemmed from something entirely different. But she refused to think about that now.
  298.  
  299. "But I...if you had turned away from Them, that..." She broke off, and shook her head slightly, momentarily unable to speak.
  300.  
  301. A few seconds passed before she continued. "I..that...would be more difficult to understand," she finished quietly.
  302.  
  303. "In any case," the dwarf waved a hand dismissively, "Be you king or peasant, as you depart my perception you cease to exist."
  304.  
  305. She blinked in confusion for a moment, before suddenly recognising the sentence as a Nihilist greeting. Her eyes widened imperceptibly - hadn't he just said he wasn't..? - but then she noticed him shuffle his feet, a slightly devious quirk to his lips, and she narrowed her eyes. As if she wasn't on edge enough already!
  306.  
  307. He might still have it in him to jest, but her reply was deadly serious. "Not always true, for still echoes linger beyond immediate perception. In written word or in memory, in legend and in myth."
  308.  
  309. A brief second of hesitation, then words whispered so faintly they were nearly inaudible.
  310.  
  311. "Thus do you remain...to me."
  312.  
  313. He heard it, though, green eyes sparkling with amusement as he glanced at her, and she flushed as she caught his gaze, hastily averting her own. Beside him Tane was completely stoic, unreadable as usual. The silence stretched, awkward at first with the lingering expectation of response; but as none came, it slowly settled into a companionable absence of noise, vaguely reminiscent of better times past in a different guardhouse far away.
  314.  
  315. The perfect, golden circle of the sun was completely visible in the bright blue sky now, luminous rays streaming over the land. The two ex-Mhaldorians turned slightly into the light, shielding their eyes with a hand from the near-blinding radiance as they watched the last of the sunrise.
  316.  
  317. Next to them, the large stallion stamped upon the cobblestones, snorting restively and flexing its great, bat-like wings. The sound drew their attention, and both of them turned away from the sun, glancing instinctively towards where she was standing - but there was no one there.
  318.  
  319. They were alone.
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