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Castle Vespida

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM

Castle Vespida
Home to the mysterious Vespida family, Castle Vespida's dark, imposing walls were clearly designed to keep intruders out. The castle is situated on the northern coast of the Maldek peninsula, right up against the sheer cliffs that drop down into the cold, unforgiving sea. The single road leading up to the castle is heavily guarded, patrolled by mounted swordsmen and watched over by hidden archers sequestered in holes dug into the rocks. Nobody gets into the castle without the family knowing about it, and any souls who find themselves inside without permission seldom find their way out again. Those that do are released only at the family's whim, and are often left horribly disfigured as a reminder of their trespassing.
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
The party rode up the path to the castle just as the sun began to dip below the horizon, casting long shadows that danced across the jagged rocks lining the road. They made quite the odd group, a cluster of hooded archers accompanied by a black carriage and a small Av'rae caravan. Most of the horses gave the strange, spiny creature a wide berth, shying away from its spikes and whinnying unhappily every time they got within prodding distance. Most of the archers paid the nomads little heed, nursing their own wounds and occasionally waving off into the shadows as they trudged down the long path back to the castle. They spoke little, communicating mostly through a sort of sign language indecipherable to anyone outside of the family's employ. Vala rode up alongside Dolich, the two exchanging hushed whispers about the current state of affairs and the horrors they'd seen. Dolich was the only one among them who rode with his hood down, the only visible human face in the whole party.

Upon reaching the castle, the gates were opened, swinging silently on well-oiled hinges. A pair of heavy iron portcullises were lifted to allow them to enter, sliding back down into place as soon as the last person had passed. There were no cheers upon their arrival, no greetings other than curt nods or stiff salutes. The whole castle seemed to be a hive of tense activity, with every resident engrossed in their task at hand. The courtyard was filled with the rasp of blades on grindstones, the crackle of burning braziers, and the banging of blacksmith's hammers. Even the children were busy, carrying bundles of arrows up to the battlements and hauling baskets of bandages. There certainly were a lot of arrows, with piles of the distinctive black-painted projectiles stacked up in every corner and against each wall. The atmosphere here was unmistakably tense, and the place had the distinctive feeling of a castle at war. The residents looked up in surprise at the sight of the nomads, but quickly returned to their tasks.

"We seldom allow outsiders into the castle," said Dolich, riding up alongside the cart. "Given the present circumstances, though...we wouldn't dream of turning you away into the night. Welcome, and please make yourselves at home. Come, we'll dress your wounds over here."

Leaving their horses to the stablehands, Dolich and Vala led the traders into the main keep and into what looked to be a great hall converted into a makeshift infirmary. The tables and chairs were gone, replaced with rows of cots. Most of the beds seemed to be filled, and the hall rang with the groans of the injured. A handful of harried-looking sawbones and nurses buzzed about, flitting from bed to bed and treating the wounded as best they could.

"Seems like they're all a bit busy," said Vala, still wearing her hood up despite being indoors. "I can clean and dress your wounds, if you'd like. I know how to do it. I'm quite good at it, if I do say so myself."
 
What is it with humans and such big castles? Yes, they had great big walls and such, but with the portcullises and towers and stone walls, it felt more like a prison behind them. They kept the outside world out, but the inside world seemed so drab and restrictive. This castle is different, however, and not in a good way. Not in the slightest.

“Your castle is so…” she looks up at the dark walls, the pointed tips of the towers, and the precarious cliff it sat on. “Olc. A ’cur eagal ort. Dorcha....” She couldn’t find the right word in the common human tongue, but she soon looks to Dolich, having found one. “Imposing, and not in an impressive way. One that makes me want to not return.” What was an Av’ to expect, when they lived their lives free on the open plains and roads the world had to offer, only to be presented with such a place.

“You are preparing for war,” Kahn says from the back of the cart, taking note of all the work being done around them. “Impressive. If it is just the freaks we met on the road, your walls will hold.” He peers to the front of the cart, an unamused look on his face. “But it would be foolish to expect them to be the only enemies you will face. I hope you will be prepared.”

A harsh look from Raynaa cuts him off however. “They are aware of this, husband,” she says, before putting a hand on his shoulder. “It is rude to point out the obvious in such a way. We will be gone before there is any risk to the walls. We will go far from where these pages are.” The bigger Av’ nods and looks out the back of the cart once more, keeping to himself once again.

Ahnya merely sighs and places a hand on the make-shift bandage she had applied over a year in her tunic. “Apologies, we are all very tired after tonight,” she says to Dolich, peering out of her hood with an apologetic look in her eye. “We are normally more gracious guests. We will make it up to you once we have rested. For now, you must accept only my thanks for welcoming us into your home.” As intimidating as it is.

The group dismounts, with Ahnya pausing to help her good friend Aleh down from the back of the cart, and making sure his gash got first dibs over healers. “They are merely flesh wounds,” Ahnya says as she aids Aleh down into a seat, and watches as the others sit as well. Kahn and Ranyaa, having made it through the fight unscathed, immediately get to work applying first aid to Aleh and Tahl, more so the former.

Meanwhile, Ahnya sits on an old crate and lets out a long, drawn out sigh. Her wounds were merely cuts, but they stung and wept droplets of blood that stained her light blue trousers and white tunic. She would need to dig out her replacements to be sure. She takes a few deep breaths to decompress, then looks at Vala, barely having to look up given her considerable height, and nods. “Just something to clean the wounds and bandages will do,” she says. “I’ve no need for anything serious. Save it for those truly injured.”

With that, she pulls down her hood, revealing her well maintained, dark blue hair that complimented her light blue skin and bright green eyes. Her hair was mostly straight, pulled into a low ponytail at the back of her head, with the strands just behind her slightly pointed ears and horns pulled into several braids, some complete with a little bauble or trinket at its tip. Her horns curved back and around, not unlike a ram. Her left horn had a golden clasp half way through, and both were tipped with similar golden caps, one of which had a small charm dangling from it.

Charms, trinkets, and jewelry were not uncommon among Av’rae, and Ahnya was no exception. With her hood down, anyone could see a pair of golden hoops at the top of her ear on the left side, and a matching one through the lobe of her right. She even had a small ring through her septim.

After removing her poncho, more of her outfit is revealed. A studded leather cuirass clung to her body, obscuring her shape a little, but for good reason. The leather was thick enough to deflect any a scratch, it would seem, protecting her vital organs as any good armour could do. It's the next part she pulls off, revealing an ample chest and somewhat slim physique underneath, still covered by a dirty white tunic that’s held together by the drawstrings that go down her neck and towards her chest. She rolls up the sleeve just enough to reveal the wounds beneath, which are presented to Vala for cleaning and bandaging.

She would probably have to remove her trousers to properly cover the cuts on her thighs and calves, and the thought certainly crossed her mind, but it didn’t give her any pause, but she wasn’t in a rush. For now, just rolling her sleeves was enough.

Ahnya hisses lightly as Vala begins work, but nods for her to continue. It wasn’t the worst she had faced. “I see the war has taken its toll already,” she says in a low tone, looking over the stretchers of the injured. So many bodies. “Your people once helped mine… if you were to call for Av’rae healers, I am certain they would come. The Vespidas more than any other humans. Do so before this magical plague your kind has wrought hits the Dwarven holds, once they call for aid… you may no longer be priority.” She had travelled the roads for many years, and knew much of her people’s politics. Anyone who knew anything about them would see that she is likely telling the truth.
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
"The castle was not designed to be a home," said Vala, her voice terse as she started to clean Ahnya's cuts with a dark, stinging liquid. "It's a stronghold, designed to keep outsiders on the outside. Our secrets are more valuable than our comfort. I'm sure that you'll find it more comfortable than staying out in the woods with those things running around, imposing as it is."

"Lady Vala!"

A shrill voice called out from across the room, and a wrinkled man with a long, curled white mustache came hobbling quickly towards the group. He froze in his tracks when he saw the nomads, staring bug-eyed at them for several moments, before hurrying to Vala's side.

"What are you doing, Lady Vala?" he demanded. "When did you get back? Come, quickly. Get to your quarters. It's time for you to rest, let our healers deal with these people. And for goodness sake, give me the cloak!"

Sighing, Vala flipped back the hood and unclasped the cloak, tossing it unceremoniously to the man. At the sight of her raw, scarred face, the man gasped, taking a step back.

"How...how long?" he stammered. "How long did you-"

Looking back to the nomads, he quickly stopped himself and shook his head.

"To your quarters immediately," he said. "We'll send one of the healers to treat your wounds. Rest and recover, Lady Vala."

"I'll finish up here," said Dolich, taking the bandages from her. "Go on, Vala. Go rest or he'll hound you all night long."

Vala looked as though she were about to protest for a moment, then nodded and left the hall. The man followed her, still scolding her and using his cane more to gesture wildly in the air than to lean on. Dolich took over, sitting in front of Ahnya and gently taking her arm in his to bandage it up.

"Our uncle," he said. "You'll have to forgive him, he's very protective of us. Vala especially."
 
Ahnya is about to reply to Vala’s description of her castle, which to her made very little sense as a home, but is unpleasantly surprised when she hears the shrill yell from across the hall, causing her to damn near jump out of her seat. She looks around for a brief moment before seeing the man scurry across towards them. He didn’t seem the impressive sort to her, but he obviously carried some sort of alleged royal weight. She watches the exchange with confusion before watching Vala be escorted off, once again noting her scars. The Vespidas are truly bizarre…

“You are a strange people,” she says as she looks to Dolich as he begins bandaging her arms. “But I am not one to ask questio- ah! Careful,” she hisses as he applies just a little too much pressure for just a moment. “However I understand his protective nature. Many Av’ parents are similar, especially those that raise groups.”

With her arms bandaged up, she stands and unbuckles her belt, then pulls her trousers down just enough so her wounds are accessible, an inch or so above her knee cap. Thankfully, she remembered to wear underpants today, otherwise it would perhaps be a little more awkward than it already was. The underpants in question are more akin to a tight fitting pair of shorts, cut half way down her thigh.

She shifts her long thin tail behind her, and sits back just enough to let Dolich work without getting in his way. “I will admit… this is a little strange,” she says, watching the human work. “But that is the mood of the day. Perhaps my discomfort comes from processing…”
 
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Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
Dolich had to admit to himself that he was a little surprised when Ahnya pulled down her trousers to let him bandage her thigh, but decided that she was probably just a very practically-minded person. After all, there was little sense in trying to dress the wound over her clothes, nor was it practical to call over a woman just to bandage up one cut. He worked quickly and carefully, applying the same burning salve before bandaging it up with a practiced hand.

"One could say the same about you," he said. "Living on the roads, never calling any one place your home. I couldn't imagine such a life. The Vespidas are bound to this castle, one way or another. If we had to move...goodness, I don't want to think about that. I've lived here my whole life. Didn't even leave the castle walls until I was 12 years old. Perhaps it just has to do with what you're used to. I don't think any of us are used to this, and I hope we don't end up getting used to it."

He finished with the bandages, giving Ahnya a soft pat on the thigh before rising to his feet. The other nomads had been tended to as well, although none of their healers spoke a word and communicated with each other through the same strange sign language that the archers had used.

"Would you join us for a meal?" asked Dolich. "Or would you rather I simply show you to the guest quarters for the night? I'm afraid we seldom get guests, and we weren't expecting anyone, so they may be a bit dusty. I hope you'll forgive us, and don't take it as a reflection of our hospitality."

Of course, Dolich knew as well as she did that most other great houses would offer them little more than a barn loft to sleep in, if they let them on the property at all. Many of the houses were mistrustful of the Av'rae, thinking them to be untrustworthy thieves and criminals.
 
"Perhaps if my peoples' native land was not destroyed aeons ago, we would be the same," Ahnya muses, before hissing slightly at the burning salve. If it meant there would be no infections, she would endure it. The Av'rae did indeed still have a home around the lands that were once part of their great empire thousands of years ago, but they were content for the world to see them as nomads. Less chance of invasions that way. "I should not judge. I have many dwarven friends who rarely leave their hold, at least you do not live far underground or in the heart of a mountain. It leaves them... very pale."

Once her wounds are bound, she stands up and pulls her trousers back up, buttoning the front, and the smaller button above a dip at the back of her pants for her tail to rest comfortably. "Thank you, Mr... lord? Dolich. Your assistance does not go unappreciated." With that, she bows once more. "Guest rooms won't be necessary, we are used to sleeping in the open. Given the situation though..." She looks to her crew and sighs slightly, seeing the exhaustion and pain they felt. "Perhaps a night in relative luxury would be good for the soul, dust or no dust. My friends... they haven't slept on real beds in a little while."

Her eyes go back to Dolich and she gives a slight smile. "None of us will say no to a meal, though. Do expect Aleh to critique, he takes his cooking very seriously and... well, I know why. He is strong and very good in a fight, but he is with us for his talent over a stove." She looks herself over for a moment before continuing. "Perhaps first we should change, and wash before we eat, if we may. I doubt the black-taint blood is good for our health..."
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
"Just Dolich is fine," responded Dolich. "Or Doli, if you prefer. Come along this way then, you can wash up over here. I'll have someone bring your belongings. As my father likes to say, wartime is no excuse for poor cleanliness..."

He paused for a moment, then shook his head and sighed. Cocking his head for Ahnya and the others to follow, he headed out of the great hall and into a narrow stone hallway.

"This isn't wartime, though," he said. "Wars have goals, if nothing else. Enemies to be defeated. Capitals to capture. Once you win, the war ends. This...this is just senseless violence. There's no winning against these beasts, more will continue to rise until the book is resealed. I doubt that'll happen, though. Have you heard...no, you wouldn't have. But the other families have put together an expedition to reassemble the book, each sending their finest champions. All the families working together...it'll never happen. They'll be at each other's throats in moments, and then they'll all be killed and their artifacts will be lost. My family wanted no part in that disaster-to-be."

He led them through a veritable maze of halls and passageways, taking a convoluted, twisting path through hall after identical stone hall. No artwork hung on the walls, no doors were marked, not even a single suit of armor stood in the halls to differentiate one from another. Nevertheless, Dolich managed to navigate the honeycomb of corridors effortlessly, making his way to a small, clean sauna and bathing area.

"Feel free to wash up here," he said. "An attendant will be along to bring your belongings and lead you to the meeting room. Ordinarily we'd eat in the grand hall, but under the circumstances...we make do. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got to check on my sister."

Nodding politely to them and giving Ahnya a small bow, he vanished down one of the corridors, leaving the group alone.
 
Dolich, right. That's... a little too familiar for Ahnya, but its better than Doli, so she decides to run with it. "Thank you," she says as she begins to follow. "You will offer the same hospitality to my friends, yes? I am not the only one who wishes the bathe." Of course, she had no idea how many bathing suites there were in the castle, so she just hoped they were all offered the same thing. She may be the leader of this posse, but she wouldn't want preferential treatment.

The narrow halls seemed so sparse to Ahnya, but after many years on the roads, she makes notes of every corner, how many doors until the next one, and commits these facts to memory. She wouldn't want to get lost in these halls, she doubts she'd ever be found if she did. "I did not know the book was released, of course I would not know of any expedition," she says, curtly, then realizes that was a little rude. "Apologies, I did not mean to be short." Ironic coming from the six-foot-two Av'. "But I am not surprised by your words. There is a reason my people do not trust humans so easily, they do not even trust each other. This is why every race except the Humans and to an extent the Dwarves think trusting your kind with these artifacts was a bad idea." She looks down to Doli with a stern expression. "We still do. Your family is the exception for most of the Av'rae, and only because of your involvement with our war of freedom years ago, and even then..." she lets that trail off.

Once they get to the bathing suite, Ahnya can't help but admire it. She had been in a few bath houses in her time, especially closer to the border mountains far to the east, but this one is different. So... private. Much nicer than sharing a sauna with a bunch of other people. "I will join you later then. Is it a formal dinner, or something a little more casual?" she asks. "You humans have such an emphasis on dress code, it is hard to keep track of it all."

Once the human has left, Ahnya takes a deep breath. It took so much energy to be calm and courteous in the presence of nobility, especially when in the heart of their home, but it seemed to have paid off. She quickly slips out of her dirty outfit and gives herself a quick once over for any scratches or cuts she misses. Much to her relief, her naked light blue skin was only pockmarked by dark blue bruises, no cuts to be seen. Once her bath is run, she slips into the warm water with a bar of soap and lays back, enjoying her good soak. She may even take the time to do some grooming, or polish the jewellery that decorated her body, but she'd have to avoid falling asleep in the wonderfully warm water.

Its about an hour before Anhya makes her way to the meeting room, feeling and looking so much more refreshed. Her golden jewellery shine beautifully in the light, and her skin seems a much more vibrant blue. Her hair, finally cleaned and silky smooth, is loose behind her head, reaching down between her shoulder blades, and she wears a new outfit, a clean one to boot. A set of white trousers cover her oddly curved legs, finished by a pair of fresh socks and her boots, which have been cleaned perfectly. On her torso, a dark blue tunic with golden stitching that tucks into a leather belt across her midsection. Her sleeves are loose around her wrists, from which a pair of lovely bracelets stick out of. She even took the time to tidy her eyebrows and properly groom for the first time in about a month. Even her hair seems a little different, but its hard to tell how now that its clean.

"Thank you for the use of your facilities," she says in a slightly softer tone than before. "I feel much better." She looks around the room for a moment. "It seems my crew is taking their time as well."
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
Dolich was waiting for her when she returned, sitting at the head of the table with a goblet of wine in his hand. He'd cleaned up as well, switching out of the long cloak for more relaxed attire. The white tunic he wore was clearly made of silk or some other very fine material, decorated only by the Vespida family crest on the lapel. It was simple in its cut, similar almost to hers, but likely cost a fortune. He gestured for her to take a seat, and a silent attendant appeared at her shoulder to fill her own goblet with wine.

"Of course," he said. "I can hardly blame them. It's been a long day, and I'd imagine anyone would appreciate a good, long soak after a fight like that. Vala will be joining us in a little bit as well. My mother and father send their regards, but regrettably will be unable to join us for dinner. I do hope you enjoy pheasant. I'm told that we'll be having spiced pheasant breast with roast carrots and fresh bread. It should be ready soon enough, I think.

He took a long sip from his glass, giving his guest a brilliantly white smile. She certainly did clean up nicely, and he didn't remember the last time he'd sat down and had a meal with someone from outside the castle. If nothing else, she'd make a pleasant dinner guest. If all went well, perhaps she would be more. Perhaps her band of travelers would be able to help the family in some way. After all, they needed some way to keep tabs on the doomed expedition.

"Tell me, Ahnya," he said. "You must have seen quite a few remarkable things on your travels. Have you ever seen anything you couldn't explain? Something so strange that it seemed almost supernatural in nature?"
 
Ahnya sets a small satchel down beside her, one that had been until this moment hiding behind her, and helps herself to a seat at the table. She finds the chairs oddly comfortable, even if her tail had to curve around to her side and hang from the front of it. She had become used to such a thing, all she had to do was sit forward slightly. She looks her human dinner companion over, admiring the craftsmanship of his clothing. Many of her kind, when in their camps or rare homes, enjoy similar clothing, but it had become quite rare for the road-walkers.

"I would not be surprised if any has gone straight to bed afterwards," she muses, leaning on the table in front of her, finally feeling relaxed. "But we shall see. Perhaps they will take dinner in the rooms you have provided, if they are so inclined." It wouldn't be the first time they've split up once arriving at a destination. Though good friends, they all had lives of their own. "Your parents shall not be joining us? No matter, I don't like feeling outnumbered anyway." With that, she lets out a small sigh and feels herself loosen up a little more. "Aleh is a master when it comes to quail. Your cooks will have quite a task ahead of them." She notes that he has a goblet of wine and sits up a little. "I... could not trouble you for a tankard of ale, could I?" she asks, reaching beside her chair and pulling a tankard from her bag. The tankard itself is a shiny steel, engraved with long patterns along the rim and base, one in a typical, interlocking, weaving lined style the Av'rae used, and the other a more harsh, runic style of the Dwarves. The middle of the tankard has a matching dwarven coat of arms and a series of runes beside it. No doubt this had been a gift.

"Of course I have seen things I cannot explain," Ahnya says, raising an eyebrow. She had traveled thousands of miles in every direction. "Many things I can't explain are simply cultural. Such as the humans living in such places as this, or the snake folk of the south and their veneration of gods of the undead, to name just one of their odd dieties. There are things that I would assume you do not exist that I have seen as well, such as the floating temple of Nashu'ud." Quite the adventurer, this one. "But I was barely older than a child when I saw such a place. I once traveled with my cousin and her family, a group of road warriors and guides. You see much of the world when you travel with such people."

"I am no stranger to the super natural," Ahnya says, sitting back in her chair. "None of my people are. We were once grand magic users before our magic was stolen. We still have a connection to the unknown none can explain, we feel things on the wind and see things in our dreams that others do not. Many have tried to harness this and control it, they believe it is magic that is trying to touch us once more, but... to me it is little more than the calls of ghosts. Memories that have not been laid to rest."
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
Dolich listened with rapt interest, nodding along as Ahnya described the wonders of her travels. His eyes widened as she so casually described the floating temple of Nahu'ud, a legend that he had never imagined actually existed. Surely she had to be exaggerating things...but something in the way she spoke told him that she was telling the truth. He noted the slight bitterness with which she once again mentioned her people's magic being "stolen" but dismissed it. It was likely a touchy subject, and he didn't want to offend his new dinner guest before the food had even been served. Nodding a head to the servant, he made a small gesture with his hand. The servant vanished silently from the room, appearing moments later to fill Ahnya's tankard with a rich honey ale. She looked questioningly at Dolich, twisting her fingers in that strange sign language that Ahnya had seen earlier, and he shook his head. Nodding, she vanished once more, stepping as lightly as a stalking cat as she left the room.

"Our own local brew," he said. "I do hope you enjoy it. As for the temple of Nashu'ud...my goodness. I won't ask where it is, but if you've really laid eyes on such a place...I hope to see it someday. I seldom leave the family lands, but the world clearly contains so many more...exciting sights. Perhaps one of these days I'll have a chance to travel, but my duties often keep me home. To see such a place as a child...it's no wonder that you took to adventuring so easily. My childhood was spent within these walls, and I have a hard time imagining a life elsewhere. Ah, Vala. You've made it just in time."

This last bit was addressed over Ahnya's shoulder at Vala, who'd appeared in the doorway without a sound. The hooded cloak was gone, replaced with a much more standard black noblewoman's dress. The raw skin on her face seemed to have healed miraculously in the past couple of hours, and the scars around her eyes were barely visible under a heavy layer of skillfully-applied makeup. She didn't smile at Ahnya or Dolich, simply nodding sullenly at them as she took her seat across from the guest. The silent servant appeared once more, placing a glass of milk in front of her and spooning a dollop of honey into it from a small ceramic jar. This managed to provoke the hint of a smile at the corner of Vala's lips, and she offered the woman a nod of thanks and a complicated hand gesture.

"Vala," said Dolich. "Ahnya here was just telling me about the wondrous things she's seen on her travels. Sights you wouldn't imagine. The sort of thing that makes me almost want to leave this place and go exploring on my own."

"You wouldn't last two days out there on your own," replied Vala dryly. "This castle is our home, in life and in death."

On that cheerful note, several more servants swept in, their soft-soled shoes barely making a whisper against the stone tiles as they placed plates of food in front of the three of them. As Dolich had mentioned, spiced pheasant breast was the main course, steaming hot and seasoned heavily with exotic, imported spices. The bread was soft and warm, served with creamy butter and small dishes of golden honey. Even the carrots seemed to be perfectly cooked, sweetened with honey and roasted alongside the pheasant.
 
Ahnya gives a pleasant nod to the servant as her tankard is returned full, and tilts her head at Dolich as the servant converses in the foreign language. Once she leaves, the Av’ picks up her tankard. “Did I miss something?” she asks. “Such a strange language. Mute, is she?” She brings the tankard to her dark blue lips and takes a small sip, tasting but a sample of the ale, just in case. Her face lights up as she leans back, satisfied at the taste, and takes a more hearty swig. “Impressive.”

“Even if you were to ask, I could not tell you,” Ahnya says with a small smirk. “I was young and the way is lost to me. My cousin could perhaps show you, but it is not likely. She is very… secretive about such things, unless you are willing to spend a good fortune. A guide such as her must keep her tools of the trade to herself.” There’s a small chuckle, causing one of her baubles to jingle lightly against one of her horns. “I am no adventurer, Dolich. I am a caravan leader, there is a stark difference. Ahna, she’s the adventurer.”

She peers over her shoulder and smiles lightly as Vala enters the room, looking quite refreshed. Ahnya isn’t the only one who finds wonders in the soapy water of a good bath, at least that’s what she assumes. “Hello.”

The Av’ smiles as she’s spoken of highly again before she adds a little more. “Lady Vala is correct, even with a guide, the jungle around Nashu’ud is very dangerous. If not for the rugged terrain, the warrior tribes would make short work of anyone they do not like. Some Av’rae clans have their passages and dealings with these tribes, like with the warrior women of Qntex, but no outsider-human has made it so far, I should think.”

She quickly looks to the doors as they swing open with their meals, and she could already feel the grumbling and groaning starting in her stomach. The good company had distracted her from her own hunger, which may have been a mercy by that point. The smell that wafted from the plates was incredible, she could almost taste it on the air. Even when placed in front of her, however, she uses every bit of will power to not dig in right away, waiting to see what customs these humans followed. “This looks delightful, thank you.” She looks to the servant before they can leave, with a question on her lips. “Have my friends been brought their meals? They do not seem to want to join us tonight, but I do not want them to go hungry.”
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
Indeed, Vala did seem to have taken the time to take a bath, if the vague scent of honey-lavender soap was anything to go by. She seemed unimpressed by Ahnya's talk of rugged jungles and warrior tribes, taking a delicate sip from her glass of milk before cutting into the pheasant. Dolich followed suit soon after, as though he had been waiting for her to begin. Unlike his sister, he seemed to hold an almost childlike fascination for Ahnya's stories. The Qntex tribe especially seemed to interest him, and he seemed almost disappointed when she changed topics and asked about her friends. He glanced to the servant, who signed something to him before slipping silently out the door.

"It seems that they have," he said. "Your friend Aleh is already on his third helping, apparently. Our cooks our delighted, it's not often that they find a guest who so keenly appreciates the intricacies of their work. As for her...yes, she's mute. Most of our staff and retainers are. An odd affliction runs in the families of the surrounding towns, children are quite frequently born without a voice. It's rather odd, but our family has long since made a habit of employing such people and teaching them our own sign language. They're able to work and live among others who understand them perfectly, and it really works out quite well."

"A man without a tongue is much less likely to let it slip," added Vala, spreading honey on her bread. "We value our privacy. The other families are always sending spies to try and steal our secrets, it's really quite distressing. Could you imagine? A thief living in your home, stealing every word you say, selling them to people who will stop at nothing to destroy your family? We've had to become quite adept at catching spies. Each one that we send back bears a message from us. A strong message."

She licked a droplet of honey off the knife, making direct eye contact with Ahnya as her tongue flicked against the tip of the blade. It seemed excessively sharp for a bread knife, and Ahnya would find that all the cutlery she'd been given had also been sharpened and polished to a mirror edge. Dolich glanced over at her, letting out a somewhat nervous chuckle. What a dinner topic! He hoped she hadn't put off their guest.

"The other houses have never managed to employ your people to spy against us," he cut in. "And for that we are grateful. Any Av'rae nomads wandering through our lands will find themselves welcome to stay and shelter in our towns and strongholds, as long as they stand. Now that the Book of Night is open, I fear that the open roads may become fraught with perils, no matter how much we patrol them. And anyone who makes a life travelling the land is an adventurer in my book. Some people never leave the village they were born in, never see the beauty of the world."

"And some adventurers would have been better off staying at home," added Vala. "I'm told that the official expedition has hired a nomad guide to assist the noble heirs in their quest. May the Mother have pity on her soul."
 
Ahnya heeded no mind to Vala’s lack of interest in her stories. If she didn’t want to hear them, the Av’ would make no extra effort to try and convince her otherwise. Dolich seemed more than interested, and that was more than enough for her. As the others begin eating, so does she, and she’s more than impressed with the quality of the food. Superb, much better than she usually thought of human prepared meals. Then again, perhaps she was just spoiled by Aleh’s home cooking.

“That does sound like Aleh,” Ahnya says with a wide smile. “If he thinks a meal is good, he won’t stop at one dish. He has to keep up his considerable strength somehow as well.” She listens intently as she chews her food, curious about the mute servants that seemed to travel the Vespidas’ warren of halls. “Curious,” she says in a quiet tone. “Must be something in the water, hm? Or… does your family have an artefact? Perhaps that has something to do with it.” She then shrugs, not really committing to any idea. “Ignore my speculation, I’m certain your people have their own theories. It is a smart idea, however, hiring those who only speak a language very few understand. It seems to speak to the Vepidas’ somewhat secretive reputation.”

She looks to Vala and listens, but even as she licks her knife, she shrugs, as if to say she doesn’t know what Vala expected. “If you are implying something, do not worry. I would not work for any other noble families in these lands, nor would my caravan, and those outside these lands have no interest in the petty squabbles of your nobility. Noble family importants dwindles quickly outside of the human borders.” She nods at Dolich next. “And this is perhaps why none of us have worked in this capacity, as far as I know, for anyone here. We have very little interest in espionage, and most of us find enough work doing things we actually enjoy.”

“Your hospitality is noted among my people, lord and lady,” she continues, lifting her tankard and taking another swig. “Working against the Vespidas means working against the only human region that does not look down on us for being Av’rae. That is just not smart.” She puts her tankard down and gets back into her meal. “Those who do not leave home have a limit to their own knowledge and experience, Dolich,” she says, very sure of herself. “Doing and seeing is worth far more than reading.”

Ahnya looks to Vala and smiles. “Then it is a good thing we have no home, hm?” she asks. “Such is the nomad life.” The thought of one of her people being hired as a guide doesn’t surprise her, however. “The guide is likely to be paid well, then. I cannot say I’m not jealous.” Another morsel disappears behind her surprisingly white teeth. “Guides are not hired to keep their quarries from squabbling, just to show them the way. No guide in their right mind would let the need to protect warring nobles from each other be put in their contract.”
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
Vala let out a cold chuckle, the barest flicker of a smile crossing her face once more before vanishing. She cut into her pheasant, slicing it into pieces with a rapid series of deft flicks of the blade. Clearly, she was more than used to having a knife in her hand. Dolich went a bit slower, paying more attention to Ahnya than his food.

"I hope she has a chance to enjoy the money, then," said Vala. "You couldn't pay me to hang around those squabbling heirs, not for an hour. They're like cats and dogs, the only thing they agree on is their distaste for our family and your people. It must be awful. I can't stand them, not one bit."

"You'll have to marry one of them one day," noted Dolich, earning himself an steely glare from his sister. "Should have been that Karlos Correa, but it seems that he's chosen that Nofalo girl. Can't say I blame him, she's quite a beauty, and her house is quite powerful. I guess you'll have to settle for the Fletcher heir. What's his name again? Rupert?"

"I wouldn't touch those Fletcher brats with a ten foot pike," snapped Vala. "They're too nosy, and their family is in shambles. Haven't you heard of the girl's parents? They say her father is a drunken rake, and her mother is confined to a sanitarium in the countryside. The heir is no better. They've got nothing for us, they only want our secrets and our artifacts."

Glancing over at Ahnya, she stopped, cheeks flushing slightly. She looked down at her plate for a moment, taking a couple of deep breaths to collect herself.

"I apologize," she said. "I ought not to bore you with the affairs of nobles. As you say, we're very fond of our secrecy. As for the local affliction...who knows? Probably something in the water. Certainly not our artifact."

"Anyways," cut in Dolich, "That's enough about us. Ahnya, tell us about your family! Do they all lead caravans? How do you gather and meet, if you're always all on the road? I've always wondered about that. Do you set rendezvous points? Specified meeting times? Are there festivals or gatherings?"
 
Ahnya doesn't pay much mind to Vala's expertise with a knife. Sure, she could let her mind wonder, but she didn't feel the need to, not today. If it were some other family, perhaps, but not the Vespidas, regardless on their reputation. Besides, she found herself a little more interested in what Dolich had to say, and it was only fair that she return the attention he had shown her. Though, Vala's words make her chuckle a little.

Before she can reply, however, she looks to Dolich, not looking to interrupt, and listens intently. The politics of humans seem so... exhausting, if she were to be honest. The Av'rae have their own politics, absolutely, but not nearly as convoluted as these human nobles. House Fletcher? She had heard that name before, spoken by some Av'rae entertainers she had met and traded with on the roads. They pay good money it seems, but not always for the kind of work Ahnya and her crew were interested in. Well, everyone but Tahl perhaps.

She holds up a hand to dismiss the apology, it was fine by her. Siblings would always have their squabbles. "They are indeed boring," she says in agreement. She lets the artifact conversation go, it too holding little interest to her. "Before I speak of myself," she begins. "I have a question. Why must you human nobles marry other human nobles?" Her question sounds like a simple one, but she reckons it goes far deeper than that. "If all the families hate each other and just want power, and I must put myself in the human mind of this, why share it? Why not marry a commoner like your servants or towns folk? I have noticed and taken note of many beautiful and handsome servants around the castle, and the towns folk must like you as their rulers, so they won't betray you, and your power need not be consolidated." She looks between the two, then shrugs. "Playing politics with the other families seems dreadful and stressful. Marriage is meant to be happy, no? Be with the one you love, because what is more power if you are miserable? You are already powerful, but you could be powerful and happy." She twirls her fork in her hand and rolls her eyes. "Buuuut what do I know, I am just a happy nomad with no power of my own. I do however, have very little stress, many friends, and I've seen much the world, from the human lands to the dwarven holds and the icey northern lands of the giants to the deserts snake kingdoms of the south."

"Speaking of myself, I should entertain your request," she says, looking to Dolich now. "My family are cast far and wide. My mother and father are closer to friends than they are my parents. They fulfilled their oath as Av'rae to have an Av'rae first born, before giving me to a group mother, who feels more of an Auntie. This is something I realized your humans look down on, but to an Av' it is not uncommon to give your child to someone who wants to raise them. They are good people, I see them and their spouses often, but they did not wish to be parents when I was born." She pauses to sip from her tankard.

"So I was brought up by my aunty and her children, and they were, and still are, adventurers, guides, and explorers," she continues. "There are two exceptions. One of my cousins and his wife are blacksmiths, closer to the eastern mountain holds. His wife is one of the few Orckins accepted by the Dwarves out there, perhaps due to her skill. Another cousin operates a business in one of the coastal cities to the west, she's quite successful. Many look down on her for owning a brothel, but they change their tune when they understand she does not participate in such activities, and from my understanding never has. She is just a shrewd business woman."

"The other three, they are on the road always," she says, putting down her knife and fork for but a moment. "Two... I actually have not heard from in a while, personally, but Shyv'Ahna says they are well. She is my other cousin, a guide and... How do I put it?" She stops and ponders for a moment. "There is a word for it in my language, but I am not sure it translates. Garda an léigiún scothaosta. I think the closest translation is a warrior, or guard, perhaps? She is not to be fucked with, by human standards."

"My people meet all the time on the roads," she says, picking up her knife and fork once more, and tucking back in. "Mostly by chance. If there are many, it is a time for celebration, with song and dance, drink and food, and games. If there are only a few, however, it is a time to enjoy quiet company of our kin, and tell stories. Like you humans do, actually." There's one thing they have in common. "Rendezvous and scheduled meetings are a thing, yes, but it as individual as your own. Festivals and events, however, those are indeed a thing among my people, and the grounds on which they occur, but those aren't meant for outsiders. They are the closest things we have to a permanent home, and after some of your kind declared war on us for unjust reasons, we choose to keep them secret."

"However!" Ahnya says before anyone can interrupt. "There are some we share with other races. Once a year, three of our clans meet at the eastern mountain holds and celebrate Victory Day with the Dwarves, to commemorate when the previous elders of our clans allied with the Dwarves to drive back the goblin armies that threatened the mountain passes, and the alliance between our people that it formed. Others come for the celebrations and to spend their gold, but some of the older Dwarves still hold grudges about the humans and Orckin doing nothing to help. Do not get them started on the elves, but, well... there aren't many left of them now, are there." It wasn't a secret that the elves became reclusive after the magic was imprisoned. Unlike their cousin Av'rae, they couldn't overcome their loss of magic.

She takes a deep breath and a swig of her tankard. "Hoo. Apologies, I do not often get to speak of myself or my people to someone who is actually interested." She smiles brightly at the pair, but mostly its directed at Dolich. She didn't anticipate Vala would be at all interested, which is a shame, as Ahnya found the woman curious. "Thank you for the attention."
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
Dolich pondered Ahnya's question for a moment, tapping a finger thoughtfully against the side of his goblet. To tell the truth, it wasn't something he'd thought about before, but he supposed it was a valid question. From an outsider's perspective, marriage between nobles really was quite an odd thing, although he'd never thought of it as being particularly strange himself. Perhaps it was just because he'd grown up around it, in a world where marriages were political unions and little more. His own father had been a minor lord from a tiny duchy in the south, and he wasn't sure that he'd ever seen him and his mother exchange more than passing pleasantries.

"That's a good question," he said. "I suppose it's the curse of the noble blood. We have easy, comfortable lives, but we're not destined to marry for love. I suppose there's nothing especially wrong with it, it's just...a missed opportunity, I guess. Marriage builds an alliance, perhaps one of the strongest bonds between houses that can be built. A noble heir can only make one such alliance, and so to waste such a chance would be a disservice to the family. It's our duty to the house, just as you have your duty to your caravan. I suppose it may seem sad to an outsider, but most noble couples end up getting along well enough...at least, well enough to produce an heir. Of course, it's not uncommon for nobles to keep lovers on the side, but that's not something that's spoken of outside of closed doors."

"Unless you're the Fletchers," added Vala with a cold smirk. "Everyone knows about them. The lord's younger brother kept so many mistresses that it drove his wife mad, or so they say. And I've heard whispers about those Nofalos as well, but only whispers. I suppose the Emperor takes care of his lapdogs, keeps the rumors down."

"Hush, Vala," said Dolich. "That's enough gossip, I'm sure Ahnya cares little for it. Besides, that woman was mad long before they got married. Don't you remember that one ball we went to when we were children? She spent the whole time whispering into thin air. In any case, the life of a noble is a dull one. The traveler's life, though...I can't imagine the wonders one must see at a Victory Day celebration. Just think of all the stories, all the tales from all around the map...I wish I could hear them. We seldom have dealings with the dwarves, and I don't think there's been an elf in the past several hundred years that deigned to speak to a human. For obvious reasons, I suppose. You say one of your cousins settled in a city? I can't say I've ever seen one of your people stay in one place before...but I suppose she must be making money hand over fist. A brothel in a port city, she may as well have found the secret to turn lead into gold. Shrewd indeed. So tell me, Ahnya. How did you come to lead your own caravan? Surely that's something that doesn't just happen overnight. Did you start off on your own and gather the others over time, or did you know them already and all start off together?"

Vala opened her mouth as if to ask something as well, but never got the chance. The door burst open, and a guard in the painted-black armor of the Vespidas ran in. Sweat ran down his face as he signed a hurried message to Dolich and Vala, then hurried back out. Dolich's face darkened, and the two heirs rose from their seats.

"I'm sorry for the interruption," he said, "but it seems that the current situation has taken a turn. A horde of the creatures, multiple villages worth, appear to be on their way here to the castle. Don't worry, the castle walls will hold. You'll be safe in here, but Vala and I are going to have to take our leave and take command of the defenses. Vala, are you ready? It's only been a couple of hours since-"

He glanced at Ahnya and stopped, but Vala nodded grimly.

"I'm ready," she said. "I'll go prepare. You head up to the battlements."

Pocketing the knife, she vanished down the hall, disappearing quickly in the maze of corridors. Dolich took a deep breath, then turned to Ahnya.

"I'll have someone lead you to the guest rooms with your friends," he said. "I wouldn't dream of asking a guest to help defend the castle. However, if any of you have any talent with a bow, you're welcome to join us on the battlements. It seems that it's going to be a long night."
 
Ahnya listens intently to begin with, but is quickly bored with even more noble gossip. What is with the nobles and being all weird, and always talking about each other behind their backs? It isn’t a good look. So, instead of participating in such slander, she instead quietly eats her meal, enjoying every bite.

Finally, once she’s addressed again, she perks u. “Yes, very little care,” she says, but then it goes right back to bad mouthing these Fletcher types. She rolls her eyes and looks back to her meal. Thankfully, though, its short lived, as the topic changes, back to her tales from the greater world. She carefully considers Dolich’s questions, intent on answering every one of them, but they’re soon interrupted, much to her own annoyance.

Her heart sinks when she hears they are under attack once more. She curses under her breath, then nods. “And people wonder why we are frustrated with humans…” she grumbles before standing, having only just finished her meal. “We may be injured, Lord Dolich, but we can still fight. I must gather my gear and see about my friends. Ranyaa and I will be there, but the others are… not range inclined.” She follows one of the servants out of the room soon after, grumbling to herself.

Its about half an hour before Ahnya makes her way to the battlements, Ranyaa, Tahl, and Kahn in tow. All of them have a bit heavier armour than they previously had, each wearing light plate, helmets, and guards on their extremities, but only Ranyaa and Ahnya carry ranged weapons. Tahl and Kahn carry their sword and axe respectively, Ranyaa has her crossbow, but Ahnya carries a strange looking weapon, one of obvious dwarven design. The weapon had the stock and trigger of a crossbow, but instead of having the bow-like weapon-end, Ahnya’s weapon was more of a long tube resting on a molded wooden body. Instead of having bolts at her hip, like her other female companion, Ahnya instead carried a sack of powder and a matching sack of iron balls. A strange contraption to be sure…

Had Aleh remained behind due to his injury? Nobody could blame him, considering the gash he had received. The large man, however, is not to be underestimated, as on his strong back he carries what seems like a slab of wood with shoulder straps, from which numerous quivers hang off of it, and he immediately makes himself busy delivering them to the soldiers in the Vespida guard.

“We have come to help,” Ahnya announces, reporting for duty. She unslings her long-gun and holds it at the ready.
 

Sharkyshark

Just chillin'
The Book of Night GM
The battle was already ongoing when they arrived, although it seemed to be fairly one-sided so far. Archers lined the walls, launching wave after wave of arrows into the seething horde of monsters below with almost mechanical precision. Each volley was perfectly timed, the line of bows twanging almost simultaneously along the whole wall. The whole scene was jarringly silent, without the usual cries and shouts that generally accompanied combat. The only sounds aside from the twang of the bows were the voices of a select few officers, Dolich chief among them. When the crawling mass of creatures started to scale the wall, the silent archers would blow shrill whistles to alert the officers, who would direct the volleys to repel them. Children ran up and down the ladders, carrying box after box of the poisoned arrows that the Vespidas were so fond of.

Down below the walls, the assembled monsters had formed an undulating sea of flesh. There had to be thousands gathered, a veritable army of the beasts laying siege to the castle. Whenever one fell, twitching and writhing as an arrow's poison burned through its veins, two more would arrive. Each seemed more intent than the last, crawling over the bodies of the fallen to claw their way up the castle walls. As they climbed, their cries reached up to the top of the battlements, screaming and crying out in the voices of the humans that they had once been before the hiss of an arrow cut them off.

Spotting the nomads, Dolich hurried over, a tight smile on his face. He carried a bow himself, and glanced curiously over at Ahnya's strange dwarvish device.

"Thank you for your help," he said. "You can take your places on the third battlement. Please, stay safe and don't overtax yourselves. We'll keep you safe here. Remember, as much as they cry and shout, the twisted are no longer human. There's nothing to be done for them, except to put an end to their miserable existence."

He gestured towards where he wanted them to go, then turned as a series of sharp whistles rang out through the air. Running to the wall, he looked over at the horde below, his face turning white as he saw what had gotten his archers so agitated. The twisted had stopped trying to climb the wall, and were instead grouping together. As he watched, they pressed themselves into a tight cluster, screaming and howling all the while. Then, as if by some unheard cue, they began to merge. The twisted opened their mouths wide, the gaping maws filled with dozens of pointed teeth, and bit into the flesh of their neighbors. As the teeth sank into the sweat-soaked skin, the flesh around the mouths seemed to melt and dissolve, melding into one another bit by bit until the whole head was attached, then the neck, then the body. Arms twisted around each other, muscles and sinew combining to conglomerate into one massive beast. Individuals were still just barely visible as outlines beneath the skin like worms inside a corpse, twisting and thrashing as a headless, many-legged beast began to rise from the horde. It grew larger and larger as more twisted lent it their flesh, stretching up to the treetops and beyond. It was growing fast, almost a foot per second, and it took Dolich a moment to register what he was seeing.

"Fire!" he called. "Bring up the fire arrows! We'll burn this beast to the ground and salt the earth where it stands! Archers, hold your ground and bring this creature down. These castle walls have held back worst before, and they will again."

Behind them, off in the distance, Ahnya and the others would hear a low drone, like the buzz of some huge insect. Braziers were lit and the flames crackled as arrows were soaked in oil and set alight, soaring through the air like comets at the horrible creature rising up before them.
 
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