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An Honest Prophet's Return

StoriesbyJurixe Apr 4th, 2013 76 Never
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  1. He guided his stallion carefully up the ridged gangplank that led to the quarterdeck of the sleek Windcutter, the great beast's mane and tail of green fire flickering wildly in the sea breeze as it ascended, hooves clopping on solid wood.
  2.  
  3. He'd not been on a ship since Kidan had tried to convince him Mhaldor needed a harbour, decades ago now. He found seafaring largely a waste of time, and disliked being isolated from the mainland. Yet here he was, and it was about to be the setting for one of the most important discussions of his life.
  4.  
  5. This was probably some kind of cosmic revenge.
  6.  
  7. The two waiting for him aboard the vessel were no strangers to him; in fact, quite the opposite. One, he had carefully prised free of the ragtag band of lust-addled lackwits and money-grubbing mercenaries that called themselves Hashan, slowly guiding her away from the quagmire of idiocy towards the path of Suffering. She was one of his best conversion success stories, a perfect example of the reality of Evil's Truths; greatness would follow any who chose to shake off the shackles of sloth and frivolity, but one needed first to make that choice.
  8.  
  9. As for the other, she had set herself apart from the other slaves very early on in her life; not just because of her quiet, steady service, but also for the fierce initiative and drive that lay  beneath the calm surface. He considered himself an excellent judge of talent and had recognised the potential in her almost outright. It hadn't taken long for him to take her under his wing, and over the years he had watched her grow into the future he had always known she could accomplish.
  10.  
  11. He was proud of them, his erstwhile proteges, even though perhaps he had no right to be now. In a strange way, perhaps it was even right that the path he had embarked on so many years ago would now come full circle.
  12.  
  13. Once upon a time, he had been their general, and they his underlings; yet ever did the wheel of fate turn, and when he faced them in scant moments he would be the prospective slave and they the exalted Exsusiais, the most powerful people of the city that had once been his.
  14.  
  15. The time for idle thoughts was over, though, as the large stallion clattered onto the polished deck and sent sailors scattering before its demonic bulk. He reined it in expertly, calming it with a word before dismounting with a light leap and turning to face the two figures in front of him.
  16.  
  17. "A pleasure, as always, Viceroys."
  18.  
  19. --------------------------------------------------------------------
  20.  
  21. She surveyed the diminuitive, cloth-wrapped figure of the man before her, pointed ears pricked and alert. Beside her, she was dimly aware of her dark-haired partner nodding slightly in acknowledgement; she, however, did not return his greeting, merely studying him.
  22.  
  23. He had taught her so much about the way of Suffering, opened doors to true new insights about the world that she had never dreamed of. After she had finally tired of trying to force order and growth into Hashan, it was he who had urged her to turn West, to put her talents to better use for a more appreciative audience. Not long after her controversial arrival, he had taken an enormous gamble with her by catapulting her directly into prominence; though he had never seemed to doubt his choice, she knew it was a great show of faith and had done her utmost to be worthy of that trust.
  24.  
  25. What a shock it had been, then, to awaken one day to find that her Prophet, too, had not been immune to temptations she had dismissed as appealing only to the weak. All his poetic declarations of Suffering, vivid descriptions of Perdition's glory, vehement condescensions of lesser faiths; these fiery words lost their lustre rather rapidly when one found that they came from the mouth of a traitor.
  26.  
  27. She would never admit it to any save those she most trusted, but his departure had shaken her own beliefs considerably. If even the longtime champion of the Master's service could still succumb to base mortal desires, that meant -anyone- could.
  28.  
  29. Even her.
  30.  
  31. Her paw clenched into a fist beside her, barely stopping herself from unsheathing her claws. The question that burned upon her tongue was, quite simply, -why-. He had left a post upon the boards for them, concise and faintly regretful, saying only that it was time for another to serve as their general.
  32.  
  33. For a man who had waxed eloquent upon the majesties of Evil at every given opportunity, it was nowhere near sufficient. One would have thought he would at least have -tried- to placate them with his customary acerbic wit, silver-tongued excuses, or even the demented denouncing of the Truths in the style of the more recent defections.
  34.  
  35. Then again, what could he ever write or say that would justify his betrayal of the city he had once led?
  36.  
  37. Nothing, she thought, and maybe that was why he hadn't tried.
  38.  
  39. When she spoke, her voice was flat.
  40.  
  41. "It has not been that long since you left, Syuven, and still, I question why you choose to leave the city you served for so long for the cesspit that is Ashtan."
  42.  
  43. "I imagine the circumstances have not changed from when you first left us, in your perception. Why do you seek to return, then?"
  44.  
  45. --------------------------------------------------------------------
  46.  
  47. Why, indeed.
  48.  
  49. He'd pondered upon this long and hard before deciding to make contact with his former Council. If he was truthful, he knew that he had never truly departed; his sudden exit was the grand culmination of minor irritations and grievances that had gradually built up over the years, chafing slowly away at even his considerable patience.
  50.  
  51. Every little annoyance could have been the spark to finally set it ablaze; for him, in the end, it had been waking up to find his loyal city guards spread haphazardly all throughout the city, completely at odds with his flawless guard positioning plan - months and months of careful testing and manuvering, all disrupted overnight at the whims of some self-important Dynamis.
  52.  
  53. He had waited only for Tane, and it had taken only four words:
  54.  
  55. "I'm leaving. Come with?"
  56.  
  57. It had been somewhat of an unnecessary question, for he already knew the answer. The Dread Hand had been tired of the increasingly wayward direction of their city for far longer than he had, and had only needed a half day to sort his affairs in order before joining him under the imposing black portcullis.
  58.  
  59. Tane had never looked back as he strode out over the drawbridge, but as for himself...he'd been unable to stop himself from taking a last look, just once, almost against his will.
  60.  
  61. That single glance had been enough to capture Mhaldor in all her glory; she of the five twisting spires, painted in blood and adorned in death, wreathed in her crimson shroud, guarded by imposing black mountains, hideous abominations crawling slavishly at her feet.
  62.  
  63. She was beautiful, his Mhaldor, regal, deadly, menacing - a warrior-queen amongst the common, jealous whores that were the other city-states of Sapience, envied and reviled in equal measure.
  64.  
  65. She was incomparable.
  66.  
  67. He'd almost turned back then, almost. At the time, his feet had led him stubbornly forward; but in the end, while he didn't necessarily regret the decision, he could now finally acknowledge that his heart had always remained in the Baelgrim. He'd known it all along, of course - no one was under any illusion that he harboured a shred of loyalty for his adopted home of Ashtan - but it'd been the most logical choice at the time.
  68.  
  69. Now...things were different.
  70.  
  71. How could he explain all this to the two who watched him so expressionlessly, though? It would sound unimaginably weak in mere words, and rightly so, for in many ways it was; yet there was also a depth of incredible complexity to the whole situation - feelings, emotions, desires, histories - that simple speech could not do justice.
  72.  
  73. There was frankly no way he could paint himself in a good light; he had nothing but flowery rhetoric and crafty diversion, and if these two had been any others...but they deserved better than that, and so it was with a rare sense of fatalism that he committed himself to his final option:
  74.  
  75. Honesty.
  76.  
  77. "I wish there was some noble explanation, or at least one which was developed and interesting."
  78.  
  79. Already they were not impressed by this opening sentence, he could tell; the Rajamala's expression was flat, and the Mhun in particular was having a difficult time of hiding her disappointment, it manifesting as a nearly palpable aura around her in its intensity.
  80.  
  81. "I'll abandon all rhetoric, though, that we might sooner reach an understanding. I will speak flatly and honestly."
  82.  
  83. "I was drained, exhausted, and hadn't the time which I felt I needed to devote to the city of Evil."
  84.  
  85. He glanced at the Mhun as he said this. Her expression remained implacable, but he knew her well enough to notice when her gaze flicked away from him, just for a second. His words would resonate with her, of course; too often had he recognised the same telltale signs in her. Even now, though she stood straight and tall, there was a familiar exhaustion in her eyes she could not hide.
  86.  
  87. "It appeared, to me, to be drifting in a direction which was counter to that which I had attempted to steer it when given the opportunity."
  88.  
  89. That was nothing but the truth, and they would know it. He hadn't been twice-Tyrannus for his observations to be taken lightly.
  90.  
  91. He'd left, ultimately, because his beloved Mhaldor had become near-unrecognisable; and he hadn't known how to bring her back.
  92.  
  93. --------------------------------------------------------------------
  94.  
  95. She should be happy, she thought, staring at the Dwarf. Ecstatic, even.
  96.  
  97. How many times had she wished for this to happen? How often had she willed for him to realise the error of his ways and return to where he belonged?
  98.  
  99. And now he was here. Shouldn't she be happy that, at last, she might be getting what she wanted?
  100.  
  101. She supposed she should be. When her father had delivered the news over the Council channel, it had evoked a variety of responses from the listeners - surprise, disbelief, outrage, disdain.
  102.  
  103. On her part, all she could remember...was anger.
  104.  
  105. So many years had passed since he and Tane had abandoned the city to serve in the hated Bastion. So much time during which she had had to struggle through the anguish of betrayal and the pain of loss. So many days spent sifting through the rubble of a devastated world built on the words of a traitor, trying to separate the truth from the lie.
  106.  
  107. And still it hurt as if it was only yesterday.
  108.  
  109. Against all logic, days after they left she had sought them out upon the battlements of Ashtan, confronted them for the first time in her life. She'd been so afraid of what she would find.
  110.  
  111. They were traitors in name, of that there was no doubt, but they'd sworn to her that they were still servants of the Lords; just disillusioned with the increasingly disappointing behaviour of their (former) fellow mortal soldiers.
  112.  
  113. She knew it was foolish, so foolish, to believe the word of an already proven turncoat - and yet she'd allowed herself to cling desperately onto that anyway, a single point of hope in a sea of turbulent uncertainty.
  114.  
  115. As long as they were still the Lord's men, then they weren't truly lost, she told herself.
  116.  
  117. She could almost believe it.
  118.  
  119. "Take care of her," Syuven had told her, and even though he of all people had no right to make that request, still she'd heeded him. She'd returned galvanised to the isle, determined not to fall prey to the corrosive force of discontent that had struck them down, resolving to do what they could not and lead Mhaldor back to glory. Accepted that she'd most likely lost them forever, and moved on.
  120.  
  121. Or so she thought.
  122.  
  123. Then the unthinkable had happened, and now he was here, standing in front of her, asking for their blessing to return...suddenly all the emotions she had pushed aside came roaring back with a vengeance, and it was only then that she understood that she hadn't dealt with any of it at all, choosing only to bury them deep where she could pretend they were forgotten, that they never existed.
  124.  
  125. She'd told herself that she had no time to wallow in her own emotions, not while the city needed her.
  126.  
  127. But now there were no more excuses, and she felt the simmering, unexplainable fury bubble up uncontrollably inside her as she stared at him. Reshena had requested her company for this meeting, claiming that she wasn't sure she could contain her rage; evidently, she'd made a poor choice in her if she'd hoped for someone cool and composed.
  128.  
  129. Needing someone to vent to, she allowed her mind to touch the Rajamala's, establishing an instant connection.
  130.  
  131. [You may, I think, end up being the one to curb my own rage instead of the other way around.] she admitted in response to the Rajamala's querying brush.
  132.  
  133. Reshena was more serene than her, but the faint disquiet underneath the calm exterior did not escape the Mhun's notice. [Oh? I hope you do not end up stabbing our guest.]
  134.  
  135. She had to smile at that, if only inwardly, keeping her grey gaze trained on the Dwarf all the while. [I am honest enough to admit that it would still end poorly for me instead of vice versa.]
  136.  
  137. She might be angry, but she wasn't -quite- suicidal...yet.
  138.  
  139. --------------------------------------------------------------------
  140.  
  141. "I feel that I should make a note here, as an aside. My choice of Ashtan was no spiritual pilgrimage or grasp at military efficiency."
  142.  
  143. Of course not.
  144.  
  145. She was quite certain she knew his real reason for leaving, but nonetheless, the affirmation left her quietly relieved. She had never thought he would succumb to Nihilism, the new religion of the moment, he had never been that kind of person; but so many were abruptly 'discovering' Chaos from all walks of life lately that she could never be sure.
  146.  
  147. "I see," she remarked, keeping her voice carefully neutral. "So you feel different, now? Invigorated, perhaps, after your stint of living outside our walls? Enlightened? Disgusted?"
  148.  
  149. He stared at her, green eyes thoughtful as he rubbed his chin again, and she had to quell the irrational urge to slap his hand away. Or perhaps punch him in the face. Choices, choices.
  150.  
  151. His answer, when it came, was frank.
  152.  
  153. "I succumbed, quite simply, to base mortal desires - for the company of long-time peers, for a busy environment in which I could exist in relative anonymity - in contrast to the spotlight which has traditionally shone upon those who speak loudly from the peaks of Mhaldor isle."
  154.  
  155. Yes, she thought sardonically, he had liked the sound of his own voice - or the look of his own handwriting - quite a bit.
  156.  
  157. Unfortunately, damn the man, he was actually somewhat good at it.
  158.  
  159. "Ashtan provided this. The Nagarani can probably attest to my disinterest with Babelonian teachings in particular."
  160.  
  161. The Rajamala glanced over at her companion, just in time to catch the conflicted flicker in her grey eyes. She said nothing, turning away to pace slowly upon the deck, long tail dragging behind her as she walked - silently proud of her easy balance upon the gently rocking ship.
  162.  
  163. Not for nothing had she spent days on end aboard the Inexorable in all manner of weather and surf, she thought, watching her other companions stumble unceremoniously and grab for the railing over a particularly large swell.
  164.  
  165. It was all about the illusion of power, of control; a subtle one, but any advantage was useful in a situation like this. If you were master of your surroundings, then half the war was already won.
  166.  
  167. Not that she thought he would be overly susceptible to such things, but his dislike of ships was a nice bonus to her choice of setting.
  168.  
  169. Really, she mused, she should have been a Naga.
  170.  
  171. Still the silence stretched, but she didn't hurry the Mhun. Confirmation, denial, or even basic acknowledgement was at her discretion alone, and she would not push it or the answer would not be genuine.
  172.  
  173. Soon enough...
  174.  
  175. "I know what you said to them."
  176.  
  177. The Mhun's silken voice was even quieter than usual, a certain fragile quality to her words.
  178.  
  179. "I do not know if any of that is true."
  180.  
  181. --------------------------------------------------------------------
  182.  
  183. Darkness was stealing over the land, now, silvery moon ascending regally into the dark sky. Its pale light lent a ghostly cast to all it touched; an ethereal backdrop to the sombre scene upon the silent vessel.
  184.  
  185. He pursed his lips slightly as he considered the Mhun's response. She of all people should know, for she'd heard him talking to Metrane upon the battlements...but in a world where allegiances shifted as easily as the wind, perhaps it was a fair assessment.
  186.  
  187. "You know me well enough," he said. "I've never been one to dress up my intentions - particularly for such little benefit."
  188.  
  189. He waited, but as no response came, he shrugged slightly. "There's naught to be gained in the City of Chaos from speaking ill of Nihilism. But in any case, I have digressed."
  190.  
  191. He didn't miss the slight curling of the Mhun's gloved fingers at her side, but had no time to wonder about it, for the other Viceroy had voiced her next question.
  192.  
  193. "You know your return will not be easy at all, and on top of this, your departure was quite high-profile. What makes you think you stand any chance of returning to the Lord's city, without a compelling argument?"
  194.  
  195. Even knowing it was ill-advised, still he couldn't resist a hint of his customary irreverence, flashing a smile at her.
  196.  
  197. They should know by now that he always had a way.
  198.  
  199. "I don't ever do anything without compelling arguments, Viceroy."
  200.  
  201. She humoured him with a faint, wry smile, but her amethyst eyes told him clearly that she was not impressed. Still, she saved him the trouble of attempting an actual explanation with her next question:
  202.  
  203. "And you are ready to commit yourself to the service of Evil once more?"
  204.  
  205. --------------------------------------------------------------------
  206.  
  207. "Indeed," he answered Reshena, and though she hadn't intended to speak, the words slipped almost of their own volition from her lips.
  208.  
  209. "Why?" she asked simply. "Why now?"
  210.  
  211. She hated the plainitive note she could hear in her words; perhaps too much to hope that it would have escaped him, but he gave no indication to the contrary as his attention turned towards her.
  212.  
  213. "I was partly stirred by Joryn's post," he explained. "The public boards, perhaps you've read it."
  214.  
  215. She nodded slightly, recalling the grandiose tale of the mighty Eleusian warrior, weakened to a mere husk by the unending onslaught of necromantic exterminations upon his beloved forests; before the dark magic had had time to fully corrupt his soul, however, some maggot-ridden Nihilist 'friend' of his had taken him to the fabled caverns and 'enlightened' him, now to serve forevermore as a soldier of Chaos - centuries of dedication to Nature erased in an instant.
  216.  
  217. She'd always known the tree-dwellers were weak of spirit, but that was a new low even for her. Perhaps the power of this Nihilism was more formidable than she had anticipated.
  218.  
  219. Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face, for he continued, "I never thought much of the overnight conversions which take place behind closed doors, or cavern-gates."
  220.  
  221. Oh, what -irony-.
  222.  
  223. The sheer audacity of it left her breathless, incredulous rage flaring red-hot deep within her.
  224.  
  225. "As opposed to public overnight conversions?" she shot back, words tumbling over each other in her haste to get them out, knowing the bitterness in her voice was almost too raw but in that instant not particularly caring.
  226.  
  227. He'd realised his mistake as soon as the words left his mouth, following up quickly with "I should qualify that" almost before she'd finished speaking. She crossed her slender arms over her chest, her gaze challenging as she waited for his answer.
  228.  
  229. "Conversions," he tried to explain, "in that the person's long-standing ideals shift immediately to suit that of their new home."
  230.  
  231. "So you are different from the former Blackthorn General because...you held to your ideals?" she asked, a discordant note of heavy scorn in her silken voice.
  232.  
  233. "Ideals you forsook just the same, in the end, despite what you might say?"
  234.  
  235. --------------------------------------------------------------------
  236.  
  237. This meeting with him was not easy for her, but it seemed to affect her compatriot even more than she'd anticipated. She remained silent as she watched their back and forth, tone and expression saying just as much as the words themselves.
  238.  
  239. "We're different, yes," he said calmly to the Mhun, "but I'm not making any claims at martyrdom."
  240.  
  241. At least he has that much self-awareness.
  242.  
  243. "It stirred me, is all - shone some light on my own behaviour. Similarly, the destruction of Shallam. We might conclude that a series of events led me here," he finished.
  244.  
  245. Where any other would be grovelling on the deck to please the both of them for a better chance at approval by now, promising them the moon and the stars, he was taking the completely opposite route by admitting that he was imperfect, that he would fail; not quite nonchalant in his delivery but not effusively remorseful either.
  246.  
  247. An interesting tactic, she mused, for it was one that depended entirely on the confidence of the speaker. A pity, as well, for it would have been interesting to watch him grovel.
  248.  
  249. He was sincere, of that much she was sure; but despite his attempts at being somewhat deferential, still his trademark arrogance bled through in every word and gesture, intentional or not. It was a mark of someone long acquainted with the seat of power, someone more used to giving than receiving orders. He'd never really stopped being the general.
  250.  
  251. She wondered idly how he would cope with being a slave again.
  252.  
  253. She could be appreciative of his clinical approach to the matter, but as she slid a sideways look over to her fellow Viceroy, this was evidently not the case for all of them. At first glance Jariel seemed implacable as always, but her sharp feline eyes caught the way she held herself just a little too rigidly, her gaze a little too fixed...the faintest tremble in her limbs a little too constant to attribute entirely to the night breeze.
  254.  
  255. It was quite unusual to see her so riled over something - indeed, rare to see any outward show of emotion from her at all.
  256.  
  257. Anger, she wondered, or was it something else?
  258.  
  259. ---------------------------------------------------------------------
  260.  
  261. He had an idea of what she would ask even before she opened her mouth, seeing it written plain upon her features. She looked pale, ghostly pale in the moonlight, grey eyes nearly silver with reflected lunar radiance.
  262.  
  263. Her voice was quiet, but still it carried. "How do we know you will not turn your back on us again, just the same?"
  264.  
  265. He could probably wax lyrical about how his service to Evil would be unceasing, unyielding now that he had seen the futility of other faiths, so on and so forth, he mused - for pretty speech was, after all, his specialty.
  266.  
  267. He knew she wanted to hear it.
  268.  
  269. But he also knew that he was mortal, and to be mortal was to fail. What use were such promises when there was simply no way he could guarantee his strength of will? They would be nothing but empty appeasements at best, outright lies at worst.
  270.  
  271. Not for nothing had he worn the title of 'Honest' for decades, and he wouldn't start dishonouring it now.
  272.  
  273. "You don't, I suppose," he said bluntly, watching her flinch at his matter-of-fact tone.
  274.  
  275. "Then why?" she asked bitterly, leaning forward as if to take a step towards him, but then apparently thinking better of it. "Why should we trust you? Why should we let you back in after you cast us off for 'friends'?"
  276.  
  277. The raw pain in her voice struck him, and in a flash he -knew-. He had thought she of all people would have welcomed his intent to return, but he'd failed to take into account one thing:
  278.  
  279. Timing.
  280.  
  281. Defections were in fashion recently, it seemed, for before the conversion of the Eleusians he'd heard of the group of Naga - two of whom she'd practically grown up with, her longtime allies - who had snuck away from the Baelgrim into the embrace of the Light.
  282.  
  283. Frankly, he thought they were no great loss and had even told her so - he'd never had much time for people whose sense of self-importance outstripped actual skill - but if she had a failing, it was her sentimentality. It was that which had kept her tied to him and Tane even through their exile, and it was also that which continued to cause her such torment over these recent defections, steeped in mediocrity though they were; subsequently, her ire at him was self-defense of a sort, trying to protect her much-abused trust.
  284.  
  285. He stared at her pityingly for a moment. So young. So capable, yet still so vulnerable. Loss and betrayal had been part and parcel of his life for centuries now, and he accepted each as Oppression's castoffs; but she was evidently not yet so hardened, even though she was certainly no stranger to departure.
  286.  
  287. Again, though, placating words would only ring hollow, no matter how much he knew they would calm her. It was said, after all, that the only true Sin was self-deception. She needed to be strong enough to face reality, and to learn how to make peace with desertion, for they were not the first and would not be the last.
  288.  
  289. "Some number of centuries' service grants you fairly good odds."
  290.  
  291. Wry humour had always been his way of defusing tension; in this case he was probably too flippant, yet responding with too much gravity would only draw attention to her vulnerability, and he suspected she would not appreciate that.
  292.  
  293. In a way, it was all the solace he could give.
  294.  
  295. ---------------------------------------------------------------------
  296.  
  297. So -arrogant-.
  298.  
  299. She wrenched her gaze away from the offending figure, feeling herself shudder violently with fury, afraid she would lose control of herself.
  300.  
  301. What had she expected? Promises that he would never leave, that his loyalty would be absolute now, that he would never make the same mistake again?
  302.  
  303. Of course not...of -course- not. Syuven never made promises, never let himself be boxed into a corner he couldn't get out of, never tied himself down to anything that didn't serve his interests. He had been a Naga first, after all, and Naga always left a way out for themselves; she should know that, should know him, the self-serving bastard.
  304.  
  305. Promises meant nothing, anyway. Everyone broke them in the end.
  306.  
  307. And his ego, that damned -ego-. Of course he'd bring up his long service. Waving it around as though it was some kind of certificate of achievement.
  308.  
  309. That all meant -nothing- when you left.
  310.  
  311. She didn't trust herself enough to speak at the moment, but Reshena had clearly seen enough, smoothly taking over from her. "We have suffered enough traitors. I have seen too many fall to the weaknesses of their longings, emotions, temptations. You are certainly not above the rest," she said to him.
  312.  
  313. The Dwarf seemed slightly impatient now as he turned back to the Rajamala. "Nor below the rest - Xetan, for instance."
  314.  
  315. Typical, she thought, trying to drag another down with him. Couldn't just admit he was -wrong-. Unable to help herself, she interjected, "No. But this is not about him."
  316.  
  317. He ignored her, however - the -audacity- of him, but then, why was she even surprised by this any more - as he continued, "Your now-Tyrannus left under very similar circumstances. Nothing will shake a religious man more than his religion suddenly morphing into something new and strange."
  318.  
  319. Now he flicked his green gaze towards her. "Vengeance becoming a Master, for example," he said pointedly, and she narrowed her eyes in response.
  320.  
  321. "Or One becoming Two, in Xetan's case." He raised his eyebrows at her. "Relevant, I hope."
  322.  
  323. She was -not- going to let him use the reign of Lady Keresis as an excuse for his weakness again, unpopular though it had been.
  324.  
  325. This was -his- failing, and his alone.
  326.  
  327. Waves lapped quietly against the hull of the ship, the natural rhythm regular and soothing. She, however, was too far gone in her anger for it to have any effect on her mood, crossing her arms tightly over her chest.
  328.  
  329. "I know all your excuses for leaving," she said coldly. "That is not why we are here. We are here to answer a question that I have asked before, and that you have still yet to answer."
  330.  
  331. "-Why should we let you return-?"
  332.  
  333. --------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  334.  
  335. A spout of water shot upwards into the night sky, the playful breeze carrying some remnants of the spray over for cool relief.
  336.  
  337. Had she been alone, she would have turned to watch, for she loved seeing the whales surface. Everything seemed especially wondrous at night, particularly out on the ocean. But she wasn't, and this conversation was too important.
  338.  
  339. He was giving Jariel's question some thought. "It's a difficult question to answer, as to sell myself as anything more than a slave would do my argument discredit."
  340.  
  341. She blinked, just once. If what he had been doing for the past few hours was his attempt at trying to appear -less- than a slave, he wasn't doing a very good job of it.
  342.  
  343. Eyeing him speculatively, she said, "I suppose, in particular, the interest is in your own journey.. for redemption, if it can be called that."
  344.  
  345. -Was- he seeking redemption? She wasn't quite sure. He sought a -return-, yes, but she was not yet entirely convinced that he was truly seeking forgiveness, as opposed to it being a means to achieving an end.
  346.  
  347. "Were it an easy question to answer, additionally, we would not be here," the Mhun added.
  348.  
  349. He exhaled briefly, rubbing his chin again as he composed his thoughts.
  350.  
  351. Here we go.
  352.  
  353. "There is naught more meaningful than eternal service to a cause which is so true and powerful that it requires no mental gymnastics, no further thought nor imagination to avoid the seedlings of doubt."
  354.  
  355. "Evil is this cause, the only example of such in the realm."
  356.  
  357. To her surprise, for the first time that night, it was all gone. All the posturing, the politicking, the subtle manipulation; all of it had vanished. In its place rang only the naked, unwavering conviction of a man whose faith was the entire core of his very being; a belief so deeply entrenched within him that it was impossible to separate the person from the ideal. Even she, for all her skepticism, for all that she knew his talent in wordsmithing, was hard-pressed not to believe him instantly in that moment.
  358.  
  359. A familiar consciousness brushed against her own, and in that brief moment she caught the slow-burning embers of anger, whispers of doubt - and overlaying all that, the deep sear of long-buried pain.
  360.  
  361. [Not powerful enough to stop them taking root in his own mind.] Jariel whispered in her mind.
  362.  
  363. "Evil is complete, it is perfect."
  364.  
  365. "To say that I can see this only now, having experienced the alternative, would be trite and cliched."
  366.  
  367. It would indeed, she thought grimly, yet it was difficult not to be swayed - even a little - by the evident passion in his words. Perhaps...just perhaps...he would be worth it.
  368.  
  369. [Yet, none of us are perfect.] She thought back to Jariel. [Perhaps, this once, I might consider - amusingly enough - giving him the benefit of the doubt.]
  370.  
  371. "I have always known it."
  372.  
  373. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  374.  
  375. "Just faltered," she said, trying for sarcasm, but her voice came out soft and tired instead. Somehow, she'd either burnt all her pent-up rage at him out, or he'd managed to draw it from her with his - not quite - plea. She didn't know how, and she couldn't muster up the energy to pursue it any more. She just felt drained.
  376.  
  377. He was trying to appeal to their sense of drama, playing the tragic, devoted outcast, despite whatever he said about making no claims of martyrdom; and blast the man, it was working, even though she tried hard to stay objective.
  378.  
  379. [If we can let Carne back, I suppose we can let him try to prove himself again, as well.] She whispered again to Reshena. She allowed herself a faint sigh. [Just...]
  380.  
  381. She didn't elaborate, but she didn't have to; Reshena would know exactly what she meant.
  382.  
  383. [I know,] her partner whispered in return. [The -feelings- that build. Especially against this man.]
  384.  
  385. They were the same where he was concerned; he'd abandoned them in their hour of need, left them to make sense of an unfamiliar world, shattered the trust they'd given willingly to him, even raised arms against them and theirs, and they -hated- him for it.
  386.  
  387. But still, somehow, -still-, against all logic and reasoning, they wanted him back.
  388.  
  389. Dawn was just peeking over the horizon now, the blue-dark of the night receding timorously from the pink-grey-yellow advance. Sailors in the ships near them were beginning to stir, faint strains of some tired sea shanty floating towards them upon the breeze; she ignored all that, however, all her attention focused on Reshena as the Rajamala spoke.
  390.  
  391. "I do understand lapses in faith or judgement can happen."
  392.  
  393. He nodded his head in agreement, robes shifting about him. "I stumbled in a moment of weakness, allowed ego to feature too heavily. Condemn me for that, of course."
  394.  
  395. "But damn me to the inferno, not the Chaos plane."
  396.  
  397. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  398.  
  399. It had been difficult for him to say that; as close to a real plea as he would ever go, and even that stung his pride.
  400.  
  401. It seemed to have worked, though, as he glanced at Jariel's sunlit outline. Earlier the enraged fire in her eyes would have matched the rising sun in its intensity; he seemed to have successfully disarmed her, however, as only tired confusion now remained.
  402.  
  403. "It would be a prison of your own making, should we choose to refuse," she hissed at him, but it was for show only; there was a conspicuous absence of true venom in her voice.
  404.  
  405. She glanced briefly at Reshena, some mental discussion evidently in progress. In the next breath, she'd turned away, and Reshena stepped forward a little more - obviously taking charge of the...interrogation, he supposed this was.
  406.  
  407. He contemplated her thoughtfully for a moment, holding her amethyst gaze. It was cool and steady as she stared back at him. He wondered what she was thinking, what she was really feeling about his return; Jariel fancied herself an enigma, but she was far easier to read than she thought - particularly when strong emotions surfaced.
  408.  
  409. If Reshena felt anything similar, though, she kept it much better hidden.
  410.  
  411. "What will be your first steps, aside from conversations, to return to Mhaldor?" she finally asked.
  412.  
  413. "I don't wish to be intentionally obtuse," he replied slowly, "but the conversations will dictate the first steps. The Tyrannus's will, and whatnot."
  414.  
  415. A familiar, wry smile flitted briefly across her lips, allowing a glimpse of fang. "Perhaps you were simply cautious enough against pointing out that I was asking a daft question." She shrugged, and flicked a paw in a dismissive gesture.
  416.  
  417. He nodded. "I should add. While it has not been long, when compared with my service history, much has changed in this time. Don't think for a moment that I expect to be stepping back into the Mhaldor I left."
  418.  
  419. "Yes," she agreed. "Much has changed."
  420.  
  421. "Necessity," the Mhun interjected.
  422.  
  423. He almost smiled, looking at them both. Much had changed indeed, not least themselves.
  424.  
  425. "Indeed. As such, I would --" he cut himself off abruptly, realising that he would need to be sincere in wanting a change. He really would have to rid himself of the habit of speaking as though his opinion was law.
  426.  
  427. Though the world would be a much better place if it was.
  428.  
  429. "...Viceroys willing," he amended, "approach this slowly and deliberately. Any 'steps' will be under the direction of those more knowledgeable than I."
  430.  
  431. Despite his best intentions, he couldn't quite help the hint of irony as he smiled again at Reshena; the unladylike snort that she gave in response told him exactly what she thought of his attempt at being ingratiating.
  432.  
  433. Well, some habits died hard.
  434.  
  435. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  436.  
  437. [Thoughts?]
  438.  
  439. She flicked her gaze over to Jariel, receiving a tiny shake of the Mhun's dark head in return.
  440.  
  441. [I cannot...make sense of my thoughts presently.]
  442.  
  443. Reshena knew she spoke truth, for even through their tenuous mental connection, she could feel the turbulent maelstrom of emotions that was Jariel's consciousness. It was taking a great deal of effort, she could tell, just to keep her features impassive.
  444.  
  445. [So many conflicting emotions,] the Mhun murmured to her, sounding exhausted. [If you have further questions for him, please proceed.]
  446.  
  447. She turned away to face the patiently waiting Dwarf, shrugging her shoulders lightly in a gesture of nonchalance.
  448.  
  449. "I would say that you intended your words to hold an undercurrent of sarcasm," she said dryly, "but I will ignore that."
  450.  
  451. He shook his head in automatic denial, but she ignored that, too.
  452.  
  453. "Perhaps your return might inspire the slaves in Mhaldor to understand what it is to fall from a height and to crawl back, stripped of everything."
  454.  
  455. The moment had come to make a choice. She took a deep breath.
  456.  
  457. "I am...not particularly against your desire to be with us again."
  458.  
  459. He smiled at her, but she only stared back at him for a long moment. He never blinked as he held her gaze, and in the end, she was still the one to look away first.
  460.  
  461. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
  462.  
  463. She could only hope it wouldn't be the wrong choice...again.
  464.  
  465. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  466.  
  467. Her turn now.
  468.  
  469. She stepped forward, fixing him with her own cool gaze as he turned to her.
  470.  
  471. She'd composed a pretty speech in her head to say to him. Chastisement, of course, for he deserved nothing less, a hint of mockery for his weakness, a challenge for him to return to serve, and a reminder of Evil's greatness. Ordinarily, that would have been a respectable cocktail of Mhaldorian propaganda.
  472.  
  473. It was Syuven, though, he already knew this oft-repeated script by heart - and nothing was ever straightforward with him. She looked up at him, really -looked- at him, seeing him as though for the first time. A face so familiar to her in some ways, utterly alien in others.
  474.  
  475. She opened her mouth to speak - but what came out wasn't her forgotten speech. New words had replaced them, tumbling out of her mouth before she knew what she was saying; words she'd never planned on saying at all.
  476.  
  477. "The only reason I never truly gave you up for lost is because you are what you are."
  478.  
  479. "You, alone of all the traitors, clung on to Evil. And that, perhaps in searching for a justification for you, gave me something to hold on to."
  480.  
  481. She was probably admitting far too much in front of Reshena, but she suddenly found that she didn't care any more. She was tired, tired of all the mind games, the uncertainty, the anguish. Tired of not being able to trust.
  482.  
  483. Support his return, or deny him?
  484.  
  485. She would be well-justified in the latter, if she so chose; but in the end, her choice had never really been in question.
  486.  
  487. "I will not stand in your way to return."
  488.  
  489. Before he could speak, though, she narrowed her grey eyes at him.
  490.  
  491. "But know," she said softly, a quiet threat, "...that I do not forget."
  492.  
  493. "Or forgive easily, really," Reshena's voice drifted lazily across from near the railing.
  494.  
  495. Truth.
  496.  
  497. He didn't say anything in response, just kept his gaze on her until she nodded her head slightly and turned away, wanting nothing more than to end the conversation.
  498.  
  499. "That is all we have," Reshena said. "Don't fall from the gangplank on your way down, Syuven."
  500.  
  501. She watched as he turned to the patient stallion, placing his hand on its back to steady himself before vaulting quickly up into the saddle, glancing down at her and Reshena both.
  502.  
  503. "Thank you, Viceroys," he said, polite.
  504.  
  505. "In Suffering," she answered quietly. To others it would be a curse; but to him, always a blessing.
  506.  
  507. "In Strength," Reshena echoed next to her.
  508.  
  509. He remained motionless for a moment, just staring down at them, looking as if he had something else to say - then in the next breath, he'd yanked on the stallion's reins, whirling it around as it whinnied exultantly, rearing and leaping down the gangplank in two large bounds.
  510.  
  511. They both watched him as he galloped away from the harbour in a whirl of black shadow and emerald flame, watched him until he was nothing but a black speck that vanished on the horizon.
  512.  
  513. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
  514.  
  515. Much later that night, he was standing alone atop the battlements of Ashtan again, gazing out over the horizon. Unlike the other Ashtani who often joined him, his gaze never wandered; it was always oriented firmly upon the red-black western shadowlands, tonight even more so.
  516.  
  517. Next to him, he felt the tiniest of shifts in the air, and he knew without having to turn that she was there. She always was. He did anyway, though, flashing her a brief smile as green eyes met grey.
  518.  
  519. She didn't smile back, but neither did she move from her place beside him, staring pensively out over the walls towards the brooding silhouette of Mhaldor as he had been.
  520.  
  521. They didn't speak; they almost never did. But they didn't have to - conversation wasn't why she was here with him, nor why he kept looking West.
  522.  
  523. Truthfully, the reason was simple.
  524.  
  525. It was about coming home.
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