Ask Those We Leave Behind

The Gutter Prince

Daeren Olaris

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The Painted Lady tavern loomed tall in the snow-dusted streets. A swinging sign, half-eroded by the natural weather, proclaimed the name of the inn. Nightfall had descended like a sleepy blanket across the cold city. Very few denizens moved about and those who did draped themselves in cloaks for warmth or secrecy. Daeren held his hood up for the latter. Long ears often drew scornful looks at best in Norden. Port Izor was the most civilization the elf had seen this far north of the Dawn Wall. That didn’t mean the locals were any more tolerant.

A half-shadowed moon hung in the night sky. The full moon had been but a few days past. If Anara spoke true, her compatriot would be here. Looking both ways carefully, the Gutter Prince sighed and gently tugged on the reins of the steed that stood beside him. “Come along, Aldritch. Some water and rest for you in the stable.” Calling it a stable was generous - more like a roof with a post to tie off a horse where it had access to a trough of water and old, wet hay. The black destrier snorted in protest or annoyance. Daeren nodded in agreement. Norden was a cursed land.

Inside was about as sparse as the streets. A lazily-kept fire danced and flickered in the large heart which provided most of the light and warmth for the main hall, with a few torches along the walls providing support. Daeren’s emerald eyes scanned the alcohol-soaked den for the red-haired woman Anara Dorne has spoken of. To anyone looking at the elf from afar, a dark and rugged cloak covered most of his features except for face, shins, and feet. Mud caked his boots and a hand-and-a-half sword hung over his shoulder. A travel pack, weighed with everything someone needed to survive, clung to his back and contained all the Monster Hunter had given him. Including her own ashes.

If such a woman was here, the elven man would approach her carefully and stand before her table. In his natural, deep timber, Daeren would say, "I have... gifts from a mutual..." He noticeably paused, holding something in, "...friend."

@Kyriaki Argyro @Kashara
 
I am Ice, I am Death

Kyriaki Argyro

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@Daeren Olaris

Decayed hive was one way to describe Port Izor. By the humble standards of Norden, it was a large city. Indeed, about one third of the province called it home. But this meant little in the greater scheme of things. Like an unwanted bastard child, it had been allowed to decay. Crime and corruption could run rampant, as it long as it paid its tithes to the not particularly glorious Empire.

It was not welcoming of strangers at the best of times, and even less so now with winter looming over the denizens of this cursed land. Already, there were tales about Wighttrees being sighted once more. Perhaps the Gods had forsaken them. Perhaps they had never been with them in the first place.

The elf would get his share of suspicious or borderline hostile looks after crossing the threshold to the Painted Lady. More than a few soldiers were among the patrons drinking and playing cards. The main hall also had its share of cutthroats. The difference between them and the sentinels of House Calvinus was academic at best. One group of thugs received coin from the state, and the other did not.

A tall figure sat in the shadows near the wall. She had a cup in front of her, but anyone who checked it would find that she had barely touched it. Her legs were stretched out before her. She wore practical, sturdy boots made of supple leather. But they showed much wear and tear. A dark cloak was drawn tight around her shoulders, despite the heat emanating from the cackling fireplace. Her long red hair was worn in a simple braid down the back. A necklace hung on a chain. Her face was graced with high cheekbones, but not free of scarring.

Cold blue eyes fell upon the unknown interloper when he made his way towards her. She cocked her head to the, noting the strange turn of phase, the slight pause in his words. "Who would that be?" her tone was clipped, Imperial tongue with a Norden twang. "Who are you?"
 
The Gutter Prince

Daeren Olaris

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Anara had spoken only of the fiery hair of the woman he was supposed to meet. No mention of the contact’s well-born features; cheekbones that shaped her face flatteringly, noticeable legs, and cutting blue eyes. Eyes much like Anara’s in their unspoken power. Shame this one had a few marks that broke up the otherwise pleasing pale, northern face. It was about the only thing she shared with the various soldiers and ne’er-do-wells that made up the tavern’s clientele this evening.

But Daeren wasn’t here to admire an interesting appearance. He didn’t have the stomach for it right now even if he wanted to. A more grave duty beckoned and it visibly weighed heavily on his shoulders. The broad man didn’t answer the woman immediately, taking a moment to glance over his shoulder. Keeping alert of his surroundings had kept the elf alive this long.

Green eyes turned back to face the red-haired woman. He answered her second question first, “I am Daeren Olaris.” That name likely meant nothing to her, but an introduction might help ease the message to follow. Carefully, and with reverence, a gloved hand plucked an object from inside the cloak. A metallic chain rattled as a necklace uncurled itself and hung in the air by the man’s grasp. At the end of the length was a medallion, clean and dark, in the shape of an Auroch’s head.

“Anara of House Dorn,” said Daeren seriously and without fanfare. If this fire-haired woman was truly a friend to Monster Hunter, she would recognize the medallion immediately and how serious it was to be in the possession of another. If she knew nothing of this name, then the necklace would be a curious trinket at best. Given the seriousness of his quest, Daeren didn’t dare present any other items. They were secretly granted into his care and he would not reveal them until he was certain this was the context Anara had wanted him to meet.

@Kyriaki Argyro @Kashara
 
I am Ice, I am Death

Kyriaki Argyro

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@Daeren Olaris

The Kyriaki who had been a lady at three would've been ashamed of her scars. They would've been shameful blemishes to her. Her older, hardened self knew better. They showed what she had been through and survived. Even death had, quite literally, not stopped. Besides, her lady mother's hands had been cut and deeply scarred fending off an assassin. Father had loved her for her courage as well as her grace.

She scrutinised the stranger. Strongly built, the build of a man who had known hardship. The Empire was, as a rule, not benign to non-humans. She noted the sword hanging from his shoulder. And then her eyes fixated on the trinket he carried. She knew that necklace.

And she knew the name he spoke. Her heart would've started thundering in her chest, if it had been capable of doing that, for it no longer beat. Her blue orbs narrowed. "That necklace is hers. Where is she? How did it come into your possession?"

She did not raise her voice, speaking softly. But there was an icy edge to her tone. Anara had been the fire. Kyriaki was more like the icy glacier.
 
The Gutter Prince

Daeren Olaris

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As placid and posed as her features were, a rapid dawn of realization could be sensed. There was little doubt now that this was the person Anara had spoken of at her passing. As painful as it was to complete this task, Daeren was oathsworn to see it complete. Anara deserved that much and more. The red-haired woman’s narrowed eyes and chilly tone made the elf hesitate. Green eyes searched the woman’s features with a melancholy all their own. He sighed reluctantly and curled the medallion into his open palm, as if cherishing it. “She’s dead.”

Although he had witnessed her grizzly battle and last gasp, even seeing to her funeral pyre, saying those words aloud was still a heavy lodestone. “Anara felled an Ancient Wendigo, one that had been consuming helpless denizens of these lands. Their clash left her battered and she succumbed to her wounds.” The Monster Hunter had been gored, smashed, clawed, and gutted. Blood had watered the soil for likely a generation to come. Succumbing to her wounds and not being outright slain was a testament to her tenacity. “Black magic from the creature… was too powerful.” The retelling of the conflict seemed to sap Daeren’s own life from him. His shoulders increasingly slouched and his features more drawn. It was odd to feel this way for a woman he only spent a day with but… she was different. A human with a heart.

Collecting himself, the elven man reached out his hand and offered the medallion to the blue-eyed woman seated before him. “She wanted you to have this,” he said with a momentary pause, “And… House Dorn’s journal.” That tomb was likely the last soul of Anara on this plain of existence. Filled with generations of hard-won knowledge and experience. Who was this Northern lady that the private Monster Hunter trusted her legacy to?

@Kyriaki Argyro @Kashara
 
I am Ice, I am Death

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@Daeren Olaris

Time seemed to stop for Kyriaki. "She's dead," she repeated. Her breath frosted around, perhaps a sign of temporary loss of control. "Dead." Her jaw clenched. Angrily, she forced back tears that threatened to form in her icy blue orbs. She wanted to rage. She wanted to smash something. But it would not bring her back. The cold realisation set in. Now my family is truly gone. I am alone. She forced herself to regain a measure of composure.

"It is as is feared." Part of her had the moment he had gifts from a mutual friend. "A hunt, of course. It claimed all her family, so it was only a matter of time before the void swallowed her, too." Reaching out, she accepted proffered medaillon. "I'll take the journal. I know what it...meant to her."

The hunt had been Anara's life. As Kyriaki's pursuit of vengeance was hers. Now Anara was gone. She gazed upon the elf. He could have only known Anara for a brief while. Yet the werewolf had trusted him enough to entrust him with this task...and surprisingly he had actually bothered to see it through. "How did you two cross paths?"
 
The Gutter Prince

Daeren Olaris

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Grief extended its icy chill around the red-haired woman. She repeated the harsh words of demise twice over as two realities conflicted. One here Anara was last seen alive, happy, and powerful, and the one where she was dead. Daeren could only stand uncomfortably as the bearer, unable to comfort this woman. His gaze settled down on his boots, fist by his side clenching in suppression of his own loss.

Weight of the necklace leaving the elf’s hand made him look back up. It could have been his imagination, but the brush of her fingers felt cold. “She said much the same,” Daeren agreed solemnly as he dug into his pack. With great reverence the book was revealed to the fiery-haired maiden. He held it carefully with both hands, as if it was delicate as a crystal vase. Between its covers held the combined knowledge and experience of generations of Monster Slayers. Anara and her family’s souls and wills were inked on every page. It was obvious the elven man realized this as he placed it before the woman. As it left his grasp, Daeren sighed softly to himself in relief. A duty fulfilled.

Deep blue eyes observed the Gutter Prince before a surprising question came from the lady. Where to even begin with that story? “We met in a tavern much like this, but smaller. She made sure I was granted service from the server there.” Daeren then grew much quieter, “she also defended me from some rowdy… patrons. He nodded subtly to the Black Ones that drank heartily elsewhere in the establishment. More like Ana had massacred them. Relished in the violence in gore as she butchered them wholesale. Then she smiled with jovial glee. That savagery was disturbing at first, but now knowing the true beast underneath... it was easier to digest. "Turned out we were after the same bounty - the Wendigo. After seeing her skill, partnering up for the hunt seemed a wise idea." Anara was also pretty. That helped. Though he'd never told her that.

"If I had attempted the contract alone, I would have surely..." The elven man bit his lip and closed his eyes quickly. It was hard to still talk about. Grief drifted like a ghost, haunting him. A curse bestowed upon him by Ana's charm, bluntness, and kindness. A flash of her clinging to him sweetly in the tent as she slept came to memory only to be murdered by the bloody image of her empty eyes. Life faded from the one vibrant blue. "...Failed." That word sufficed. Daeren inhaled sharply through his nostrils and shook his head. No time for weakness. An emerald stare returned to the woman sitting before him. "I never caught your name. Who were you to Anara to be trusted this way?"

@Kyriaki Argyro @Kashara
 
I am Ice, I am Death

Kyriaki Argyro

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@Daeren Olaris

'"Sounds like her," Kyriaki remarked when Daeren briefly touched on Anara dispatching a few troublesome patrons in a tavern. Her tone indicated she'd known all about how the she-wolf revelled in violence. It also had not bothered her. In a world of backstabbers, four-faced liars and sanctimonious knights who speechified about protecting the innocent but would violate an innocent woman and put her children to the sword if their lord asked, someone who was open about relishing gore was a refreshing change. And Anara had never killed someone who didn't deserve it.'

Kyriaki took the proffered journal, noting the care with which the elf held it. As if were the most precious of ornaments. It might as well have been for Anara and her family of slayers of monsters. Her legacy, she reflected. I thought their legacy lay in a distant estate. How wrong of me. This housed her soul, not a building of bricks.

But the ice zombie would not carry on where Anara had left off. She slew monsters, yes, but the beasts she stalked walked the corridors of power, bedecked in fine silks and jewellry. Perhaps she could fill out some pages in the journal though. Kyriaki was not ashamed to admit that Anara had known more of monsters than she did. Perhaps her kin beyond the Wall would appreciate the knowledge. A small token from their prodigal daughter who had defied their laws to chase vengeance.

"I never caught your name. Who were you to Anara to be trusted this way?"

"Kyriaki," she spoke. "Anara and I were sisters in every manner except blood. She made me see that blood matters preciously little in that regard. We crossed paths in a distant town called Innsmouth to the north of Norden. I would avoid it if I were you; the locals are enthralled by a cult that abducts women to birth fish-men monstrosities and worships an ancient Myst abomination called Dagoth. We discovered the truth behind it, and helped each other live to tell the tale."

Kyriaki had saved Anara from becoming Dagoth's latest victim. For all the good it did. It had bought the she-wolf a brief time of happiness at least. Grimly, Kyriaki made a note that she would have to inform Boros of what had befallen his lover.
 
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The Gutter Prince

Daeren Olaris

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As the journal left Daeren’s grasp, he felt a great tonnage fall from his shoulders. A duty he has promised a dying woman has been fulfilled and it had been one of the most difficult quests of his life thus far. It required no battling of monsters or slaying of evil men. Only the silent traversing of a cold, windy path. The vacant world and Anara’s memory to keep company. It was the first task in life the Gutter Prince had set himself to with no tangible reward of gold or glory. Just a promise.

Innsmouth sounded like a hellish place. The elf visibly looked a little queasy at the shared tale of kidnapped women being forced to produce aquatic abominations. “These lands are truly a cursed place,” Daeren muttered under his breath to no one but himself. Norden deserved the torch more and more with every discovery. At least he knew this woman’s name. “Kyriaki,” the elven man repeated to confirm the moniker to memory. As regal as she was, there was no titles or status supplied with the first name. An interesting woman.

“I… am sorry for your loss, Kyriaki,” Daeren said with a slight mournful bow. As much as the Monster Hunter had impacted his life by their meeting, the human woman opposite had surely been bound tighter. Kyriaki did not seem overtly stricken with grief. Perhaps too stunned still from the tragic news. Unsure of what to do next, the elf cleared his throat. “If there is anything I can do to help you, do not hesitate to ask of me.”

Such an offer was laced with guilt, if only confessed as politeness vocally. If only he had been faster, stronger, more experienced; perhaps Anara would still be alive. It even took the last of her strength to finish the Wendigo. If nothing else, Daeren would help right the failings with the Monster Hunter’s closest thing to next of kin.

@kyriaki @Kashara
 
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I am Ice, I am Death

Kyriaki Argyro

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@Daeren Olaris

Kyriaki felt - very deeply, in fact. She would grieve in her own way. That being the key point. She was stoic not by nature, but nurture. Young, warm Kyriaki had been a sweet, gregarious girl. Then everyone she loved had been taken from her.

So she awkwardly sat in her chair, uncertain of what else to say. She was about to thank the elf for being with Anara in her final moments and going through the trouble of informing her of her sister's fate, and carrying out her last will, when he spoke again.

The guilt was obvious in his tone. "There is...a matter you could assist me with," she said after a brief pause. "Anara and I had a hunt planned for when she returned from her quest. The target does not have fangs and claws, but this man is no less vile than the monsters of the wild. More so probably since he doesn't have the excuse of being cursed. I must warn you, it is bound to be very dangerous. But it should leave plenty of loot behind, so you won't go home empty-handed."
 
The Gutter Prince

Daeren Olaris

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In loss, people of all races and creeds reacted differently. Some sought wine, companions, family, prayer or solitude. It is this last that the elf believed Kyriaki would desire. She seemed a stoic sort; deeply private. Even the news of her friend perishing in combat did not seem to stir open manifestations of grief. Daeren had offered his services as he grappled as his own coping. He had small doubts that his woman would trust this stranger, or even consider accepting aid from one who failed her, at all.

For silent moments, the Gutter Prince adjusted his cloak and made to leave in disgraced silence. But a well-born voice stopped him. He furrowed his brows as Kyriaki made offer of a new quest. Not one to slay a terrible monster, but a terrible man. Daeren raised a cautious eyebrow. Killing monsters or pests often had no repercussions. Killing men often did. Their toadies or family sought revenge. That was doubly true if they were nobility or someone 'important.'

The promise of loot, and thus payment, quelled much hesitation. Pushing his cloak back, Daeren wordlessly took a seat at the table across from the northern woman. He eyed her carefully before finally nodding to hear more. "I've handled plenty of danger. Who is this man? And what is he to you?" The sorrow in the elf's eyes had receded. New purpose had offered a path to redeem past failings. Enriching rewards also had a habit of burying one's troubles.

@Kashara @Kyriaki Argyro
 
I am Ice, I am Death

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@Daeren Olaris

"Julius Bacchus. A venal man; a cruel man. He scours Norden as a witch hunter. Or that is what he calls himself, at any rate. He twists the law for his own benefit. Has a strong penchant for purging non-humans along the way. Or demanding 'atonement tithes' from them. They make easy targets. And now he's right here - in Izor." This was all true, but not the only reason. But that did not merit mentioning.

She tapped a long, thin finger on the stained table. "I'm from Norden. I remember a time when the law...meant something." Of course, it had not been an egalitarian paradise for non-humans back then. They'd still been second-class citizens. There were free men; there were slaves. And more often than not non-humans belonged to the latter. But there'd been laws and accountability.
 
The Gutter Prince

Daeren Olaris

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The elven man rested his forearms on the table and balled his hands into fists. Along with the hood and cloak, he looked like any other cutthroat in the seedy establishment. Suppose that was more to the truth than mere disguise given how there was hushed talk of assassinating a Norden official. Or whatever a 'Witch Hunter' counted for in these lands. Each additional detail made Daeren’s brow shadow his eyes more and more. A zealot and corrupt in equal shares. Excessive disdain for non-humans. Hardly unique to him in Norden but one who actually had the power to do something about it beyond soldiers and aldermen. Removing the stain of Julius Baachus would just be an extra warm, fuzzy feeling in the cold tundra. The promised loot helped too.

Motive for ending the life of the witch hunter was plain as the sun rise for the Gutter Prince. That left the other party at the table. Green eyes under a furrowed brow observed the fiery-haired woman. Only met by tragedy and now scheming to spread some. The elf nodded solemnly in silent agreement before raising a gloved finger towards Kyri. He would kill Julius Baachas. “I’ve been from one end of this continent to the other and people rarely do things for justice or ‘rule of law.’” Norden was no exception. More like an exemplar of excess and hatred while shrouded in civility. Finely armored soldiers on well-bred horses couldn’t hide the savages underneath.

“So what’s in it for you really?” Daeren asked in a placid but skeptical tone. “What is a man’s life worth to you?” Knowing what people really wanted meant a great deal more than trust.

@Kashara @Kyriaki Argyro
 
I am Ice, I am Death

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@Daeren Olaris

Kyriaki's expression remained unwavering. "He is a cruel man who performs cruel deeds. What more reason is needed than true justice?" she asked. "Many of his sort are beyond reach. He is not." There was a cold fire in her blue eyes.

"Norden had a good lord once. Old Norden justice was as harsh and cold as its weather, but it was fair. Balanced. He is one of those who perverted it. Not the most powerful of them, but his death will make waves. It will weaken the rotten system. And I have debts of my own to repay. So are you in?"
 
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Everything in Norden was cold. The howling windswept trails. Fires chilled instead of warmed. Even it's populace was like the tundra they toiled over. Kyriaki was no different. Her stare was like finely cut icicles. They cut right to the heart of things with clear sight. If Daeren were a lesser man, he would have withered from her gaze alone. He still might have. Only the memory of Anara gave him resolve. This was her friend and she would not perform undue cruelty.

The elf remained silent for lingering moments. His own green eyes observing the frozen, angular features of the woman seated across from him. Her looks were distracting from attempts of reading her full intentions. Shame - if she wasn't so distant Daeren might have tried to find an excuse to flirt with her. Not everything in Norden had to be without warmth. Yet with a long exhale, the elf sat upright and thumped the edge of the table with his fist. "Cold justice," he repeated, "I can work with that."

An oath was an oath after all. A quick glance over the shoulder proved that no one else in the establishment was not particularly interested in their discussion, much less over-hearing it. Another one of the those benefits of Kyriaki having such a frigid aura, he wagered. Daeren smacked his lips and tilted his head, "I take it you have a plan?"

@Kashara @Kyriaki Argyro
 
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