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After surviving the carnage, our reluctant heroes must learn to trust each other, so that they can start the journey to reclaim honor...
Light slowly seeped through the morning fog as morning birds began their calls. Groaning with the effects of poor, uncomfortable, fretting sleep, Alexi stretched carefully to avoid upsetting his slowly healing wounds. After all, all the mancing and science in the world couldn’t immediately mend skin, let alone bind muscle, and set bone. It would be a while before he was 100%, but that wouldn’t stop him from traveling, merely slow him down.
It had been dumb luck, that he survived; just as the polymorph dove at him, she collapsed from exhaustion, pain, and the strain of a first comprehensive change. After tending what he could of his own wounds, he tended to the girl, the other sole survivor, even going so far as to introduce a counter morph agent, intravenously, so she could resume her human form. Though her features remained strikingly Vulpine, an oddly satisfying composite. He just hoped she wouldn’t still be in a berserker frame of mind when she woke. Just to be on the safe side, he crafted a small cage to isolate her long enough to talk, should it come to that.
As she was still fast asleep, he set to work making a breakfast of suitable quality to alleviate some hunger or pain, for the both of them.
Khana’s body ached; her muscles, ligaments, bones, and fiber of her being throbbed in agony. Nothing felt like it quite fit together perfectly anymore; a side effect of complete form transition. Her mother told her all the issues she would have, and that eventually she would get used to it, and her body would learn the best way to transition.
As she crawled back to consciousness, a striking scent pierced her snout. She crinkled her nose and pulled the odd feeling blanket, that felt more like metallic parchment, closer to her face to blot out the smell, then realized that was the source.
“Goddess, what the… Who’s stink is that? I don’t recognize… Where am I?”
Nudity was a fact of life, as after a transition one would not be clothed, so she ignored the slight chill in the air as she inspected the cage she had been placed in. Constructed of freshly felled timber, and lashed with a robe like she had never seen. The cuts of the wood had been made with a tool she couldn’t imagine. Soon, the scent of fresh cooking caused her stomach to growl in desire.
She searched for, and found the source, “You, Man, what’s the meaning of this? Why am I here, what have you done to me!” She demanded, angrier than she had been in a long time.
"Finally awake, I see.” Alexi casually replied turning from his camp stove, but still averting his eyes, “And not in a berserker rage, that’s a good start. If you promise to not try to kill me, I’ll let you out.”
Finding his mannerisms confusing, she just rolled her eyes and sighed, “Man, if I wanted you dead, you would be…”
“Hence the cage.” He shrugged, still not looking at her.
There were certain expectations one had in a polite conversation. No matter whom she had talked with, everyone was amicable, even the pack dogs they occasionally traded with. The fact that this man refused civil bearing irritated her more than it should.
“People look at each other when they talk. And you will have to look to release me.” She returned wearily.
“Where I come from people cover up in polite conversations…”
“What queer prudish hole did you crawl out from?” She laughed, his unease easing her tension, “First you imprison me, then you get concerned about gracious conduct? You must have seen me when you put me in here, you better not have done anymore…”
“Most women I know would be perturbed by that kind of thought…”
“You don’t seem the type, Sheepy… Look is there a way I can fix this?”
“There is a blanket in there, you can cover up…”
“What, so I will have your stink on me? Besides, its barely a light fabric. Is this some kind of, this is you pack initiation, isn’t it? You pack boys disgust me…” she sighed, crossing her arms, but still not moving to cover herself.
“What makes you think I’m, what did you say, pack?” His polite shyness dissipating, “And that is a survival blanket, keep you toastier than furs if you give it a chance…”
“Tissue paper, even if it is made out of metal, is not very comforting. Speaking of impossible gear, you have quite a bit of strange equipment and stuff that can’t be pride, so it must be pack, though I have to admit, I didn’t think Pack tech was so… different.”
“Well, I’m not pack, nor pride, nor even clowder.” He shrugged, “My equipment, like me, is from out of town.”
She couldn’t help but scoff, “Sure, you might even believe that. Are you going to let me out?”
“Are you going to cover up?”
“I’m not cowering in a metal tissue that smells like you…”
“I’ve never used it…” he groaned, picking through a bag and sniffing some articles, “Here are some shorts and a shirt, do they pass the sniff test?” he threw them through the bars.
She sniffed, “Fine, whatever.” She groaned putting the lesser offending garments on quickly.
Once she was dressed, he pulled out a knife and cut some of the ropes holding a makeshift door in place, “You have food, what is it?”
While tempted to confront her assumption some of it was for her, he just indicated she should sit in a nearby chair, “Reconstituted eggs, granola, rehydrated potato mash, and orange flavored nutrient drink.”
“Flavored? Never mind, give me my plate.”
Knowing that this was going to be a long morning, he begrudgingly served her, and half hoped she didn’t need any further help and would leave soon. As soon as she received her plate, she tore in and despite obviously not caring for the taste wolfed it down.
Khana found the taste off-putting, but considered the source and shrugged it off, she was, after all famished, “So, out of town, hunh, how far?”
“You hear of the Central Empire?” He replied, eating at a more moderate pace.
Khana had heard of that mythical Empire, all here pride had. Supposedly in the middle of the world, though she never heard if it having edges, it was filled with people, men and women in the same pridevale, as disgusting as it sounded. Only a few men were permitted in the pridevale, the old and the young and a few of appropriate age, but that was where the line was drawn their place was away. She also heard that it harbored knowledge and power that one could only dream of. But those were tails for children. This man wanted something, that much was for sure…
“Centralia is a myth.” She scoffed after downing half her odd orange drink, “Look, you don’t have to lie, if you don’t want to tell me, don’t. But don’t treat me like an idiot.”
Alexi knew many outside the Empire's borders cared little for things outside their own villages. There were only a few traveling merchants that always seemed to have more men than women. He knew that they had little in the way of science, instead focused on mysticism to stay hidden and out of the way. That was what had prompted him to leave his home; different ways of looking at things could lead to new discoveries. There were also the stories of the ancients, he just had to fumble through it until he found a good path.
“Fair enough.” He shrugged, her belief not needed, “Would you like more?”
“Sure, why not.” She accepted a second helping of everything, it was filling if odd tasting, “Are you going to tell me why you captured me, and more importantly, how?”
“The details of the exchange are, not known, or at least not to me.” He returned to his own seat, “What I know is a village was being attacked by idiots, I lent aid, then you showed up, finished off the conflict than fainted. I wanted to ensure you were not overly injured, and make sure I didn’t get killed, so I reverted you and put you in the cage.”
She had been worried he was some weird kind of pervert that wanted a trophy, not that she would let him have one. His explanation, while weird, was not cause for worry, he didn’t seem to want her hanging around; she may get away without a fight.
“Sounds reasonable, if I leave, you won’t stop me?”
“Not my place to do so.” He shrugged, relieved she was going to leave, “But I will offer my assistance…”
“Help, from a man that can barely cook?” she laughed, “Not likely, you need help more than I, but, like you say, not my place. Thanks for what can only be loosely called food, but if I catch you skulking around the pridevale, I will kill you.”
With that, she was gone, just outside the site he found his shirt and shorts, ripped and torn, barely serviceable, “That is why I didn’t want to lend her actual cloths.”
Khana couldn’t get out of that man’s cloths fast enough, she didn’t even care that they might be ruined, in fact, she secretly hoped they were. As she darted through the woods trying to find the way home, she felt an odd momentary vertigo as she crossed the line of demarcation for his crazy glamour. The sensation was dripping with oil, it was heavy but subtle at the same time. She was glad she wouldn’t have to feel that ever again.
“Stupid man must have messed up his charm, like he did with his food.” She grunted while she got her bearings, “Ah ha, the vale is this way, how the hell was he so close and I didn’t know? Too damn close, but it’s not time for confrontations.”
She slipped into the vale’s zone and let the refreshing sensation of a properly cast natural charm wash over her. But it felt different, it was dying, who’s turn was it to tend the charm; was it hers? She would defiantly have to make up for this.
As she turned onto the main thoroughfare she stopped cold. She could not believe her eyes. For an eternity she looked upon the scene blankly, unable to form a thought, trying to understand. Weapons and gear littered the grounds. The bodies of her sisters had been gathered together with care and covered out of respect, the invaders had been stacked like cordwood and buzzards were already beginning their job.
“At least he tried.” She managed meekly, “No wonder the charm is fading. What do I do now?”
After cleaning up and packing his gear, Alexi began again to follow the trail towards the unknown. Outside the Central Empire roads didn’t exist, and now knowing how the communities were hidden, Alexi didn’t expect to run into anyone else for quite a while. But, as the trail widened into a small clearing around and along a creek, a trio of shady looking characters greeted him.
“Oh look, looks like we have a lone wolf here, what happened to your pack Wolfie?”
Alexi didn’t slow his pace until he was physically blocked from progressing, “I have no quarrel with you, and you shouldn’t start anything with me.” He returned coldly as he attempted to navigate his way out of the impasse, after all, he was still injured and it did not do anyone good to put a finger into every pie one found.
“Can’t let you leave there, bro, you see, there is a toll for pack deserters.” The center hooligan reached out to touch a pointer to Alexi’s chest.
The trio was rough looking and young, barely in their second decade. Their features were a combo of lupine, ursine, and human, maybe a little ox in the third too. They acted so confidant that it was certain their ‘pack’ of back up were just out of sight, he casually reached out with is senses and noted that there were two dozen, not overwhelming odds for a former trained spell sword, but he did not need more enemies. He took a moment to collect himself, so as not to act too rash, and assessed the trio in front of him closer.
The center had the tell tail signs of a pyromancer, not surprising as the stupid seeking power often turned to that, or necromancy if they were exceptionally stupid. His charcoal hair was cleaner than the others and slightly more stylized, the obvious leader. The one to his right was a lectromancer if the scapgot electric focusing gem in his pocket was anything to go by. His dirty blond hair was tangled and more than unkempt, he hated water, like the tiger blood in his blood evidenced. The third was a poly mancer, less than skilled in lithomancy, aquamancy, and pneumomancy; polymancers that didn’t work twenty times harder and have the best in tutors seldom progressed very far in any of their mances.
He sighed realizing this would be a simple matter if it came to it, “What makes you think I’m not pride?”
“Prides stay put, no way that traveling gear is pride tech, either.”
“I’m from out of town, excuse me.” He tried again to leave without incident.
“Centralian, thought so.” The polymancer scoffed.
“So it’s not a myth?” Alexi raised his eyebrow in interest.
“Prides don’t get out much, and as much as they will deny it, they need packs to get merch, news, and of course better genes…” The poly continued, he was convinced but the leader wasn’t
“I’m not interested in a history lesson…” Alexi tried once more.
“Hold on, the toll for Centralians is double.” The leader smiled, accepting Alexi might a Centralian.
“Either you get out of my way, or you die, choose quickly.” It was not a threat, Alexi would follow through.
“You give up your tech, or you die and we take it.” The leader returned as the rest of the pack emerged from the woods.
“So, its death, then.”
The three attacked with steel and spell. During the whole conversation, Alexi had been building up his mana and directing it to establish a ward of protection that snapped into existence as soon as the bandits made their moves. In that same instant, he unleashed his friction lock baton and deflected the physical attacks. As fast as fire, the three traded blows with the one. Still being stiff from yesterday, they managed to score a few low point hits, despite their ineptitude. The trio was quickly dealt with and the support jumped in, close enough for physical combat as their mances were not that remarkable.
Baton in one hand, pilfered blade in the other, his martial skill was second to none, he swept through his foes with fire, lightning, blade, and bludgeon, “He’s a poly mancer!” called one of the still fighting enemies.
“No.” Alexi smiled as he knocked down another and lifted him with magic, “I’m an omni mancer, I can do it all.”
With that, he snapped the other’s neck. As the last struggled to stand and loom behind Alexi, an arrow pierced his throat, “I knew he was there.” Alexi turned to the archer and was slightly surprised to find Khana, “I thought you’d be home by now.”
“I was, but there is nothing for me now, and I saw what was done there, and I have to know what your stake is in this?”
“Like I said, I was passing through, and those were ass hats.” He shrugged, “What changed your mind, I know I’m not that magnetic, or at least I hope not.”
“As I was cleaning up your mess and putting my sisters to rest,” she shrugged, looting some corpses, “I found a message to one of them, they were working for another, and he wants something old, something he thinks the prides hid. We didn’t, but, he was at least familiar with centralians, and you will probably meet up with him. I will accompany you with the provision, I kill the bastard that ordered my pride’s downfall.”
“What makes you think I will cross paths with whomever your talking about?”
“I’m not stupid, you are looking for something, maybe what he is maybe not, but it will lead you to similar locations.”
“You can tag along, but that doesn’t mean I will protect you…”
“I doubt you could…”
“You saw what I just did to these guys…”
“Idiot Packers don’t prove skill, and I know this area far better than you…”
“What are you getting out of it?” he asked trying to get her to leave
“The head of the bastard that killed my pride.” She reiterated, “Odds are your quest will lead you to him as you have similar goals, men think alike, and there is safety in numbers.”
“Whatever, follow or not, I don’t care.”