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A Battle of Wills

StoriesbyJurixe Apr 4th, 2013 139 Never
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  1. ...and my gratitude for the entertainment provided.
  2.  
  3. The young Mhun ended the letter with a flourish, setting her quill aside and scooping the parchment up carefully. She pursed her lips and blew lightly over the drying ink to hasten the process, holding it away from her as she reviewed the letter once more by flickering torchlight.
  4.  
  5. She had spent some time penning this letter, short as it was compared to her usual missives, for it had to be perfectly professional. She -was- the Minister of Cultural Affairs, after all, some appearances had to be maintained - but she also wanted to allow -just- that right amount of cutting disdain to show through her carefully chosen words.
  6.  
  7. It was almost an art form, she thought, and one she rather prided herself on. Crude insults and petty namecalling were more suited for Ithmian cave-dwellers or vacuous Hashani politicians, for they of course could not be expected to know better.
  8.  
  9. But this adversary was a former Naga, and from his earlier correspondence, not altogether an imbecile. No, she would not underestimate him - and indeed her careful wordplay was almost a testament to the slightly higher regard she held him in, for her effort would undoubtedly be wasted on others.
  10.  
  11. Her grey eyes scanned the parchment again, and she frowned slightly as she came to the end. Of course - she'd almost forgotten to sign it. It would be such a waste if she'd gone to all that trouble to write the letter, and he didn't even know who it was from.
  12.  
  13. Laying the parchment down upon the table, she picked up her quill again, meticulously tracing a tiny symbol on the lower right corner of the letter. That done, she gave it a few cursory puffs, laid her quill to one side, rolled the letter up and tied it off with a gleaming silver ribbon.
  14.  
  15. "Finally done, are you?" asked the attending succubus in a bored tone, dropping her nail file with a clatter upon the onyx desk in front of her. Cages upon cages were stacked behind her in the black marble room, each containing a tiny, ugly gremlin that paced impatiently in the confined space or chewed on the tiny bones of unidentifiable animals.
  16.  
  17. For the most part only a low murmur of movement and grunts broke the silence, but occasionally - for reasons she had yet to fathom - one would let loose an unearthly screech and it would set them all off into a cacophony of distorted, godsforsaken noise.
  18.  
  19. Just like now, she thought, her annoyance growing as the clamouring began to intensify, the hideous creatures even rattling and shaking the bars of their iron prisons in agitation - which of course only added to the racket.
  20.  
  21. The succubus seemed unperturbed by the commotion, but she supposed that was what centuries of co-existence with gremlins would do to you; she, however, had not had that privilege and the noise was beginning to give her a headache.
  22.  
  23. "Indeed," she replied, her voice a near-shout over the din as she handed the letter to the succubus. "Send this to Ashtan. The gremlin will know which one I want." Steel-hued eyes narrowed in a warning. "And if it loses my missive again, I will ensure you are properly acquainted with Theoren once more. I am certain he will be most pleased to see you."
  24.  
  25. The succubus's perfect features darkened slightly, but her flippant attitude seemed to diminish as she rose gracefully from her seat and turned away from the Mhun. Tail flicking agitatedly behind her, she strode over to one of the cages and unsheathed a long, curved claw, easily picking the lock on the cage door and throwing it open.
  26.  
  27. The Mhun watched dispassionately as the gremlin within screamed in terror and huddled up against the far side of the cage, trying to get as far away as it could from the demonic postmistress. All a futile effort, of course, as the cage was barely two feet wide - the succubus merely reached in and hauled the gremlin out by the scruff of its neck, it struggling and yelling something undoubtedly unsavoury in an incomprehensible tongue. Its protestations only further excited its fellows, and the uproar generated reached an almost unbearable level.
  28.  
  29. Without warning, the succubus's eyes glowed an eerie red hue, her exquisite features morphing into something gruesomely unholy as she let loose a ferocious snarl. The terrifying sound reverberated around the room, drowning out all other noise and causing all the gremlins to subside immediately into petrified, whimpering balls - including the one in her grasp.
  30.  
  31. The angry luminescence faded from her eyes as the succubus's displeasure vanished, her face re-molding itself once more into her flawless visage. "Now, that's much better, isn't it?" she said sweetly to the gremlin, who trembled and cringed violently away from her.
  32.  
  33. "Here, be a good gremlin and take this to Ashtan. You know who to find, don't you?" The gremlin clutched its long, spindly fingers around the rolled-up parchment, nodding fervently.
  34.  
  35. "Then -go-," the succubus growled, flinging the creature unceremoniously into the air. With a yelp, it vanished in a puff of black smoke.
  36.  
  37. Muttering under her breath, the succubus turned back to her desk - but there was no one there.
  38.  
  39. ==========================================================================================
  40.  
  41. The Mhun was taking inventory of the stock in her shop when he made first contact, the alien feel of his consciousness brushing over her own taking her by surprise.
  42.  
  43. [Amusing.]
  44.  
  45. Startled, she set down her list on a nearby table and took a moment to compose herself. The hint of displeasure in his tone brought a slight curl to her lips, and she allowed a suggestion of that to slip through.
  46.  
  47. [Yes, I believe I said as much.]
  48.  
  49. He wasn't pleased, she could sense it, but he kept his cool.
  50.  
  51. [Let's meet at Lavane's Stores and at least discuss the possibilities of working together, hm?]
  52.  
  53. How did he -
  54.  
  55. She frowned, suddenly annoyed. She usually wasn't that easily found, but he was clearly watching her.
  56.  
  57. [We could certainly meet here, but I suspect discussions would most likely be done via arrow and blade than word. If you think I am going to allow you safe passage through Mhaldor and not slay you on sight, I welcome the opportunity to prove you wrong.]
  58.  
  59. A mock sigh. [That's unfortunate. I relish the opportunity of meeting such a driven zealot in person at some point.]
  60.  
  61. She was about to give a scathing reply, then paused. -Did- she want to meet him? There was some benefit to learning about your enemies at times. Even the most worthless at first glance sometimes let slip things that could be useful later on.
  62.  
  63. [I am not presently an enemy of Ashtan, so I may walk there freely...]
  64.  
  65. But he might think she -wanted- to meet him. She couldn't let him get the upper hand that easily.
  66.  
  67. [-though that does not mean I am willing to meet you.]
  68.  
  69. Deciding to leave the stocking of her shop for another day, she closed the door behind her and made her way through the winding streets, heading for the city gates. She could make a fast exit from there if she did decide to visit the Bastion, she reasoned.
  70.  
  71. As she walked, she felt his amusement clear through the link between their minds. [You're too much on edge, Jariel. I merely offered you a working relationship. After all, a future Nagaraja should have a plethora of contacts.]
  72.  
  73. She really disliked this heathen habit of addressing strangers by name. The privilege to use one's given name should be earned, yet she knew those with less disciplined upbringings did so on a regular basis.
  74.  
  75. Such undeserved familiarity - ridiculous.
  76.  
  77. As for his insinuation about the 'future Nagaraja'...she flicked her grey eyes upwards in a subtle roll as she made her way up the stairs to the upper circle. He'd sent a few letters to her before, extolling her virtues and urging her to accept his help to become Nagarani.
  78.  
  79. It amused her that he thought she needed his assistance.
  80.  
  81. [Considering the contents of your past letters, I think I am sufficiently justified in such. I know - and have seen - what you and your kind typically do to those that you meet beyond your fold. I am not interested in becoming another.]
  82.  
  83. She was no stranger to the workings of the Nihilists, being quietly privy to many a conversation and meeting between the strange followers of the Mad God. She thought of how often she'd watched as His demented priests rambled about inane nothings in the middle of the Mhojave desert, got themselves intoxicated on all manner of spirits, and took up any excuse to brand passing acquaintances with that terrible disfigurement they called a Mark.
  84.  
  85. For some incomprehensible reason, the draw of such lunatics was apparently considerable - they'd managed to tempt away many of her former Mhaldorian brethren to join their ranks. Generals, slaves, scholars, fighters - a variety they'd coaxed over to their side, including her present conversation partner.
  86.  
  87. She would -not- be yet another feather in their oversized cap.
  88.  
  89. He seemed to have fallen silent as she reached the imposing gates of the city, and she stood there for a moment, deliberating. Perhaps he'd run out of things to say to try and convince her.
  90.  
  91. That thought was quickly dismissed as his next words resonated in her mind: [You're a beautiful creature, Jariel. A rare testament to our race. It's too bad I could only afford a passing glance while you sit at those gates. It's also unfortunate that you did not join the best of your people in emigrating to my great city.]
  92.  
  93. Her grey eyes widened, and one hand went to the hilt of her dirk at her side, dark head swiveling from side to side as she scanned the area quickly. It was pointless, of course, she already knew - he would be long back behind the walls of Ashtan by now, and to make things worse he had the powerful enchantment of the Sphinx protecting him from easy detection.
  94.  
  95. Accursed magic.
  96.  
  97. Around the hilt of her dirk, her fingers curled into a tight fist, feeling the cold metal press uncomfortably into her skin - and not caring.
  98.  
  99. [Your attempts at flattery will not work on me, so do not bother. You can keep the myriad of traitors - the deserters - that proved themselves unworthy of being even the ground dust beneath the heels of the Masters.]
  100.  
  101. Unbidden, the image of a hooded, wraith-like form materialised in her mind's eye, astride a huge daemonic stallion -
  102.  
  103. No.
  104.  
  105. She shook her head, raven ponytail flicking back and forth as she tried to dislodge the vision from her mind. She would -not- think about them. The sentry wraiths at the gates turned towards her inquiringly, but she ignored them.
  106.  
  107. [We have - no need of their kind here.] She put more force into the thought than was necessary, and cursed herself for it.
  108.  
  109. Feigned innocence. [Flattery? A mere observation on your beauty, Jariel, nothing more. As for your traitors, that's debatable, I'm sure. They merely sought the strength that isn't present in Baelgrim. Admirable in a way. Come now, though, you don't desire another contact, hm?]
  110.  
  111. Fury blazed up in her, but quickly subsided as the realisation of what he was doing hit her. He was trying to unnerve her, of course, press at her weak points - a common Naga tactic.
  112.  
  113. And she was letting him.
  114.  
  115. She took a deep breath, steadying herself as she forced her fingers to relax, unwinding them from around the hilt of her dirk. The ornate grip of the weapon left matching imprints in her flesh, an indication of how tightly she'd clutched it.
  116.  
  117. [They sought and found the illusion of strength, is what they did. Long may it suffice for them, for tis all they will ever aspire to.]
  118.  
  119. She was pleased at how calm she sounded, and decided to be a little more cutting in her next words.
  120.  
  121. [A contact implies one that will be useful in my endeavours. You have yet to make any sort of convincing statement in your favour thus far.]
  122.  
  123. His reply was a succinct [Hah,] and she arched an eyebrow in sardonic amusement. If he wanted to help her win her argument, she wasn't complaining.
  124.  
  125. [If that was supposed to be said convincing statement, I believe I rest my case.]
  126.  
  127. A pause. [Mm, so quick to induce judgment. Apologies, I was dealing with something.]
  128.  
  129. [Should I withhold it, then, and wait for you to prove otherwise?]
  130.  
  131. His tone was still languid, unruffled, but this time she could detect stirrings of impatience. [There's nothing needed to prove, dear. I don't need to beg, either, as Baelgrim isn't worth it. Either you want to work with me, or you don't.]
  132.  
  133. Unconsciously, she folded her slender arms over her chest. [I desire to know what is it you want. It can scarcely matter to you who leads the Naga, so do not pretend as though that holds any significance to you.]
  134.  
  135. [Of course it matters, Jariel.]
  136.  
  137. Again with the familiarity. It was beginning to irk her a little.
  138.  
  139. [I'd enjoy working with a strong Nagaraja. Perhaps you forget that I was once a Naga, until, of course, I was enlightened. But that's besides the point. You deserve the chance to lead the remnants of a once proud people.]
  140.  
  141. She exhaled briefly in something resembling a disbelieving snort. Did he -really- think she believed in his concern for the Naga, after those drawings of rattlesnakes eating adders that he'd sent her? Crude and childlike, of course, as was to be expected - but still.
  142.  
  143. [I did not forget, which makes your words about as valid as those of the aforementioned traitors. If your concern for the well-being of the Naga was genuine, then you would
  144. be a Naga.]
  145.  
  146. A thought struck her. Of course - he was probably doing all this to get her to say or do something incriminating, make her slip up and then take the information to Jevone to get in his good books.
  147.  
  148. She would be ousted and he would earn Jevone's trust - two birds with one stone. He'd probably even talked to Jevone before and been refused, which was why he was targeting her instead.
  149.  
  150. Well. If he didn't think she could recognise his underhanded tactics (being some she'd used before), he had another thing coming.
  151.  
  152. [I am under no illusions that you have not already contacted the Nagaraja, making much the same offer.]
  153.  
  154. If he were present, she imagined, he would have chuckled. [Beauty and intellect, a rare breed indeed. Yes, you're right of course, I do not genuinely care for the Naga. I do, however, wish to see you succeed. And no, your pathetic Nagaraja hasn't been contacted, not concerning this.]
  155.  
  156. Bingo. She'd been right all along.
  157.  
  158. '..wish to see you succeed' - ha. Succeed in becoming his pawn, more likely. As for not contacting Jevone, that was naturally yet another falsehood. He'd already lied once, hadn't he?
  159.  
  160. She felt a brief flare of outrage. [You cannot expect me to believe you when you have confessed to outright lying about your main motive, surely. Even more so considering I have barely corresponded with you before this month.]
  161.  
  162. She waited for some time, but he was unusually silent, leaving her with nothing to do but stew on his words. Maybe she -should- go to Ashtan and try to find him. She likely wouldn't succeed, but perhaps he'd find her - and then she'd be able to give him a piece of her mind in person, for she felt that telepathic communication seemed to take some of the edge off her more choice sentences.
  163.  
  164. She'd probably be able to escape if he tried anything strange, she reassured herself.
  165.  
  166. Her mind made up, she began to move, passing through the city gates and darting light-footed over the wasteland of Mhaldor Isle, following the winding path over the fog-blanketed expanse of rock to the world beyond.
  167.  
  168. ==========================================================================================
  169.  
  170. Over the Northern Vashnar mountains, onto the dusty Old Road, passing the forbidding Black Forest and turning onto the Prelatorian Highway - it wasn't long before she found herself in front of familiar sturdy, towering white walls.
  171.  
  172. Beyond them, she knew, lay sprawling Ashtan - Bastion of the North.
  173.  
  174. Through the open gates, she could see the utter extravagance that was the Parade of Zarathustra, leading up to a giant statue of white marble that honoured Ashtan's most famous wartime general. Numerous other main roads split off from the parade, and at the point where they met stood an eagle of enormous proportions - the Zarathustran eagle, guardian of the city.
  175.  
  176. A gaggle of citizens milled about the gates, loud voices filling the air with ribald jokes and good-natured insults. Even the guards seemed more casual here, mischievous War Witches pinching passing males on their behinds and looking away innocently as they yelped in mock outrage; their corsair counterparts yelling catcalls and whistling suggestively at any female that had the misfortune to walk by.
  177.  
  178. It was carefree, exuberant, alive, unrestrained - chaotic.
  179.  
  180. She hated it.
  181.  
  182. She was not an enemy, but it wasn't in her nature to simply stride boldly through - the fewer people knew she was here, the better. Ashtan was a former ally of the West, but after their whole involvement with trying to drain the essence of Lady Keresis, Goddess of Vengeance - now a third Master of Evil - their relations had been on rocky ground ever since.
  183.  
  184. And so, when the guards were preoccupied with a particularly flirty Siren teasing and giggling in front of the gates, she slipped soundlessly past them and was through, just like that.
  185.  
  186. She wandered through the labyrinthine streets of Ashtan for a while, her elation subsiding into a disgruntled aimlessness as she walked. What had she been thinking? She didn't even know if he was in the city, since she couldn't sense his presence at all. Their meeting was entirely at his discretion, and she hated the feeling of not being in control of the situation.
  187.  
  188. Still the link between their minds was silent, and she'd begun to think that the whole thing was a waste of time when a gaudy display of colour caught her eye. It was a brightly lit shop, its storefront covered in cloth and draperies of all colours and textures, exotic fragrances wafting out from within. A miniature pumpkin sat on the ground near the entrance, a nod to the upcoming Mayaween season.
  189.  
  190. It wasn't any of that which drew her in closer, however - instead it was the gleaming glass cases she saw positioned around the sides of the cheerful store, displaying row upon row of rare trinkets and collectible items. Blademaster swords, pouches, satchels, scabbards, dolls, jewellery...there was no shortage of interesting wares to admire. The lavish display called to the thief in her, reminding her of a time when her own collection had rivalled this - though most were long traded for shiny gold coins now.
  191.  
  192. She was in the process of examining a pendant of lilac essence (not that she would ever wear such a thing) when, with a jolt, she felt his presence flare again in her mind.
  193.  
  194. [Enjoying the collectibles?]
  195.  
  196. He sounded amused, and she fought down her irritation as she glanced around the store. He wasn't there, of course - not that she'd expected him to be. Probably laughing somewhere while he watched her, the bastard.
  197.  
  198. [The collection nearly rivals my own, yes.]
  199.  
  200. She took a deep breath, not quite believing that she was about to concede the upper hand to him. [You wished a meeting, therefore the invitation is sent.]
  201.  
  202. Far from being enthusiastic, his reply was cool. [I'm not sure I wish to meet, yet, someone who would call me an outright liar. Your opinions of me, aside, the point is whether you wish to work with me. That thought engages the possibility of both parties achieving something.]
  203.  
  204. Her grey eyes widened.
  205.  
  206. Of all the -
  207.  
  208. She whirled in a flurry of black cotton, launching into a high-speed run propelled entirely by the force of her fury. The wind rushed in her ears as her slight figure fairly flew past the Ashtani gates and back onto the highway, whipping her dark hair back as her feet drummed a steady rhythm upon dirt and rock alike.
  209.  
  210. What a -ridiculous- waste of time that had been. First he wanted to meet her in her shop, apparently completely ignoring the fact that he was a wanted man in Mhaldor, then when she was considerate enough to make the trip to -his- territory, he refused to see her because she'd called him a liar - which he was!
  211.  
  212. The black mountains of Mhaldor had just loomed over the horizon when he spoke again, terse.
  213.  
  214. [Mm, I'll take your exit as a no, then.]
  215.  
  216. She slowed to a walk, completely missing the sentries' salute to her as she crossed the threshold of the portcullis, too focused on composing a reply.
  217.  
  218. [You admitted your spiel about caring for the Naga being false, I but echo your admission. If you wish not to meet, then I have no reason to linger, do I? Other matters in Mhaldor call my attention.]
  219.  
  220. She enjoyed spars of wit and word, but this encounter was rapidly beginning to grate on her. She was getting tired of the game.
  221.  
  222. [The fact remains that I still do not know what is it that you want. Speak plainly.]
  223.  
  224. For once, he listened.
  225.  
  226. [I told you in the letter. I want you to ascend to the position of Nagaraja. And I want the current traitor, Jevone, with me. The Nihilists have plenty of uses for him.]
  227.  
  228. Even if she -wanted- to believe him, he didn't make any sense. Why would he care who became Nagaraja if he only wanted Jevone? He'd already said the Naga were none of his concern. Also, he'd called Jevone 'pathetic', and people didn't usually -want- 'pathetic' people.
  229.  
  230. [For someone purportedly so weak and useless, it seems strange that you want him on your side.]
  231.  
  232. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, then did the equivalent of a mental shrug. [You do call us "Mad", do you not? I won't pretend to explain our uses, suffice to say there are some.]
  233.  
  234. [And with good reason, it seems.] Privately, she thought she had much more creative names for his kind than 'mad'.
  235.  
  236. Well, he'd made his intentions clear. Now it was her turn.
  237.  
  238. [But as you spoke plainly, then so shall I. I am not so easily tempted to betray my citymates as those before me you now call your own. If I desired the position myself, twould not be out of my reach and I cannot see how your assistance would affect that.]
  239.  
  240. He'd probably try to twist that against her in the future, she was sure, but it was the truth.
  241.  
  242. [You are a traitor, just like the rest - and just as disappointing. I had heard about you.]
  243.  
  244. Not much, admittedly. But she knew he had been a thief, although his degree of success was likely not quite on the level of the more renowned Naga. The majority of individuals who achieved full Naga status possessed at least a modicum of competence, however, and she was certain he was no exception.
  245.  
  246. [I can only imagine the twisted lies you heard of me, Jariel. Perhaps it would be best if you took the time to find out whether they were true or not.]
  247.  
  248. She was about to make some mocking reply about how that was significantly difficult when she'd already caught him lying to her, but his next thought cut her off.
  249.  
  250. [Besides, it isn't betrayal if he has betrayed you first, hm? I have documents and letters that explain such. He is a secret servant of my Master.]
  251.  
  252. She paused to consider this. Jevone, a secret servant of Lord Babel? He was likely intelligent enough, and he -did- have a strange tendency to disappear for months on end holding secret conversations with Lords-knew-who...
  253.  
  254. ...but wouldn't that mean that he was -already- in league with them?
  255.  
  256. [Then that seems to directly contradict what you said about wanting him on your side, since he is apparently already on your side, yes?]
  257.  
  258. She felt his derision in her mind. [Of course not. He wants the best of both worlds. We intend on reclaiming the promises he made.]
  259.  
  260. Safe within the familiar gloom of the empty guardhouse, now, she folded her arms across her chest. He really must think she was some kind of idiot if he expected her to believe that.
  261.  
  262. [If said documents actually existed, you would have sent them to the Tyrannus or posted them to the public boards. Twould be little need to approach me.]
  263.  
  264. Barely had she had time to contemplate the irony of teaching a former Naga about blackmail when he suddenly changed tack. [Why do you insist on thinking you know what my Master and His priests would do in any given case?]
  265.  
  266. [Because I am a Naga,] she replied smoothly. [I know how blackmail is done, and I know the only reason tis not being done so now is simply because -you do not have it-.]
  267.  
  268. He ignored her. [Let us stick to the point, Jariel. We want you to succeed, and him to fail. Consider the gift we are giving to you.]
  269.  
  270. Oh, so now it was a 'gift'? She flicked her eyes to the ceiling in another subtle roll. How magnanimous. He couldn't be more obvious if he tried - he'd been lying through his teeth the entire time. Not that she'd expected anything less, really.
  271.  
  272. [You present me with a 'gift' I do not need, and likely with 'favours' attached that no doubt you will 'reclaim' later on. If you intend for me to believe you, produce proof of his wrongdoing. Until then the word of a Naga will always be worth more than that of a traitor - and a Nihilist.]
  273.  
  274. Even on the slightest off-chance that Jevone -was- a traitor, she thought, she certainly wasn't going to rely on evidence from -him- to prove it.
  275.  
  276. Unless, of course, the evidence happened to be genuine, but she highly doubted it.
  277.  
  278. [You think of me as a traitor, dear Jariel?]
  279.  
  280. Those who used endearments when speaking to others were most likely under the impression that it made them sound condescending, superior.
  281.  
  282. They were so -terribly- wrong.
  283.  
  284. [You deserted the service of the Lords and pledged yourself to that of Oblivion. Tis scarcely different than the other weaklings who fled to Hashan and Shallam,] she told him matter-of-factly.
  285.  
  286. [Since that puts me in the same circle as your former Overlords of Syuven and Tane, I relish that compliment. It's unfortunate you can't be with us. Baelgrim doesn't deserve such marvellous beauty.]
  287.  
  288. She was completely unprepared for the memory his words involuntarily evoked, it hitting her with the force of a thunderbolt.
  289.  
  290. That familiar almost-smile at the side of his mouth, icy blue Tsol'aa eyes looking down at her-
  291.  
  292. A sharp lance of pain sliced through her and jolted her abruptly out of the memory. She felt as though a cold fist was clenched around her heart, and she took a few deep breaths, trying to ease the discomfort - but the hollow feeling remained, just as it had since that fateful day five years ago.
  293.  
  294. How -dare- he use them against her-
  295.  
  296. [Do not -speak-]
  297.  
  298. She cut herself off as she realised that she was playing -right- into his hands, but it was too late. Like a cat spying a mouse, he pounced.
  299.  
  300. [Do not speak of who? Syuven? Tane?] he asked silkily, a flicker of sly recognition in his consciousness.
  301.  
  302. She could have hit herself. Trying to deny it would only prove that she had more to hide, so she tried a different tactic, making sure she kept a tight rein on her emotions. [Even legends must fall,] she replied shortly.
  303.  
  304. He didn't seem very impressed with her efforts. [Mhm. Perhaps once you're a legend, you'll become enlightened enough to join us here. It would be a pleasure to offer my hand, during that time, and give you a proper tour of the Bastion.]
  305.  
  306. The long-standing pain and anger within her subsided slightly, replaced by sardonic amusement. As far as opening offers went, it wasn't exactly the most attractive.
  307.  
  308. [I have seen far more of the Bastion than I desire to. You act as though this is desirable.]
  309.  
  310. Warm and low, his chuckle echoed in her awareness. [Hah, I used to say the same, in much the way you just did. In time, perhaps.]
  311.  
  312. The unnatural cold seemed to have spread through her limbs and up to her brain, freezing all her emotions. Rage, there was rage somewhere, but she couldn't feel it - nothing but ice in her heart.
  313.  
  314. Perhaps it was better that way.
  315.  
  316. She allowed some of that ice to filter into his mind. [Much as I have little regard for the teachings of your Master, I have only one response to that.]
  317.  
  318. He couldn't see her, but her lips curled upwards as she bared her fangs in a sudden display of defiance.
  319.  
  320. [Oblivion will come first.]
  321.  
  322. In contrast, his tone held only mild regret. [Very well.]
  323.  
  324. His cool response shattered her fragile composure. In a burst of fury, she wrenched her consciousness away from his own, brutally severing the link between their minds.
  325.  
  326. All that was left was a black, empty void.
  327.  
  328. ==========================================================================================
  329.  
  330. The Fire and Spice bar was doing a roaring trade as always, the handsome barkeep Dagon tirelessly mixing and sliding all manner of cocktails, shots and alcohol in general over the bar's polished countertop to accomodate a jovial Ashtani crowd.
  331.  
  332. Music, laughter and chatter filled the cosy tavern, packed almost to bursting with its usual clientele of happy drunks - all except for a small table in one particularly dark corner, a single flickering candle providing scant illumination.
  333.  
  334. Though appearing unoccupied at first glance, any who approached the table would soon find it not so. Long shadows clung almost lovingly to a slim, dark figure lounging in one of the chairs, his posture negligent but filled with a kind of dormant, deadly grace that suggested he could leap into violent action at a moment's notice. A line of golden runes glimmered as the candlelight passed over his dark hood, pulled low over his face to obscure any identifying features.
  335.  
  336. On the wooden table before him, next to the melting wax candle, was a small steel bowl full of what appeared to be clear water. This in itself would be quite unremarkable, at least until one drew close enough to gaze upon the surface of the fluid - for there in the water was the magical image of a pale female Mhun, her eyes narrowed at something in apparent anger.
  337.  
  338. The shadowy figure considered the image thoughtfully, his gaze roving calculatingly over her visage. Silver-grey eyes. Long dark hair. Alabaster skin. Fine features - probably noble blood.
  339.  
  340. He had to admit, when he'd begun his assignment, he hadn't expected Jariel Xa'fene to be so beautiful. It wasn't even just her physical features - there was something about her, an unusual fire within her that made her come alive, put that gleam in her eyes, and it drew him to her like a moth to a flame.
  341.  
  342. Oh, she was stubborn all right, but it didn't matter; perhaps was even better. More of a challenge, this way. He had been Naga before - he knew how to handle her. He would be patient, he would coax, he would cajole; then when the time came, he would bend her to his will, take what he needed from her, and she would serve the purpose she had been chosen for whether she liked it or not.
  343.  
  344. Unseen, his lips curved upwards in a smirk even as he slid a long finger into the still water, making a slight flicking motion that sent ripples across its surface and dissipated the image within.
  345.  
  346. One way or another, she would be his.
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