She rested a warm and gentle hand on his shoulder, the razor edge of her claws delicate against his collarbone. He turned to her, burying his face in the thick wool robes that covered her armor, a plea for something he couldn't put words to. He was tired of being alone, with no one to turn to. Even Soren came at a distance, a compatriot in arms, a friend, but never truly a source of comfort from the darkness. And comfort she gave, silently winding fingers in his hair and belling wings protectively over his head. Her mane was silk in his grasp, thick and dense between his fingers.
"You think me a fool." He muttered, embarrassed.
"No." She disagreed easily enough. "I think it's been a rough day. I'll let you go, if that's what you want."
"Not yet." He sighed, closing his eyes and drifting. "I do have to go out there, though." If Alioth was here, then he had a new source of intelligence, more information, a better chance of finding what he was looking for. And once he did that, he could get out of here. Get her out of here. This was a hero's errand, and he was in no mood to be a hero. But they were all the chance that those units had, and he was still a daeva. An Asmodian. A General. He wouldn't quail, no matter how dark it got.
"Drink this, and I'll let you go." There was an undercurrent of threatening promise beneath her words, and he sighed. She was a big girl, with a lot of weight and blessings to put behind that sentiment. She could, especially as bad off as he was, put forth a really good effort to hold onto him.
The draft she gave him was warm, both from her body temperature and from the spices in it, and he felt better almost immediately. The moment he had the last drop down, she furled her wings and they vanished in a puff of feathers. "So what do you think of Alioth?" He asked when she stepped away to give him room to stand.
"Shame. He'd be a lovely Asmodian." She shrugged, beginning to repack her Cube with the supplies she'd been using on him. "I know he's not, but he seems soft. Neutered. Declawed. He lacks..."
Aseph only nodded. He understood what she was trying to express, he'd felt it his fair share of times. He'd seen lovely Elyos women, brilliantly haired beauties, but so many of the features he would use to innately judge their attractiveness, were missing. And he'd never even really understood how important those features were until then. So many tiny things that made a gulf between the races. He could overlook the fact that Moriah's backmane was still dark as night, as long as she had one... as long as he could bury his face in that certain place where her neck met her back, where it grew dense and long and held a woman's smell. And the fall of tail to sway with a walk, the brutal promise of claws, those were what held his attention... he'd take the least attractive female of his own kind over the most attractive Elyos any day. "They seem to be such small lacks, until you actually see them." He stated, and she nodded in relief.
His gear was bundled on the ground and he picked it up, surveying the damage. He hated the smell of his own blood, and he'd always been able to distinguish it from others', and the leather was saturated with that stench, along with all of the other reeks of real armor. He glanced up, feeling her stance change, and sighed. She looked like a child waiting to be scolded, her eyes dark. "It's not as bad as I'd feared." He admitted, and it was the truth. She hadn't done any scrabbling to gain purchase, each of the holes was small, tight, perfect, no tearing. "Moriah, thank you."
She gave him a perfectly dubious look, wrinkling her freckled nose in response.
"I'm alive. Had I fallen, unconscious, into the Abyss, I wouldn't be." No, he would have fallen out of range of the kisk she carried, he would have died, and that would have been the end of that. He had no illusions about just how 'immortal' he truly was. "And, because you haven't said anything, I must assume you kept the others up..."
If she had indeed, then she was one of the finest clerics he'd ever run across. He had felt the amount of raw power she'd been channeling into Soren's healings, by all rights, Soren should have fallen in the first couple of seconds in that fight. The fact that she was still here, that he was still here, and that he didn't sense that she was hiding things from him all upheld that.
"The Elyos arrived quickly." She stated. He stared at her for a long, level moment until she twisted her lips. "We're all still here, Aseph. No one's in Primum."
"Then I thank you. And..." He studied the holes, running his own claws through them, "This can be repaired...where's my shirt?"
"It wasn't as lucky." She held up a tattered mess of bloodied linen, and he nodded. The armor was heavily enchanted, the best available. The shirt...had been just a shirt. He had others in his cube. He dug out another, motioning at her to toss the one in her hands onto the small brazier heating the tent. He'd heard rumors that the Balaur could recognize and track scents...and if he could recognize his own blood's smell, he wouldn't put it past them to be able to do the same. The less they had on him, the better.
Dressed again, he stepped out into the open, instinctively counting heads. All of his people were accounted for, and most of Alioth's. "General Alioth." He greeted, and the Elyos nodded one back at him.
"I seem to be spending my..." he glanced up into the well of darkness, "...evening thanking people for my life."
"It was close for you this time, Aseph." The great redheaded man noted slowly, and Aseph shrugged. Alioth was not a man who minced words, who threw up pleasantries to soften the truth.
"I know." Aseph sat next to him, studying his feet claws morosely. "I am blessed to have some of the finest daeva that Aion has blessed at my side, at my back."
"I see you have a new hire."
"Moriah, yes. A lucky find."
"From what I saw coming in, yes. She gave us enough time to get here... speaking of, Aseph, why are you here?"
Aseph bit his lip, to give up the positions of several beleaguered Asmodian units to an Elyos General went beyond simply ignoring that General's operations, and occasionally providing aid versus the Balaur. It was treason, pure and simple. "We've lost contact with our forward Asteria units." He muttered bitterly, his stare locked on Moriah as she moved out of the tent to sit with Soren. "We think they've been overwhelmed by this Balaur push, forced deeper into the Abyss. No one will be able to make it to them as quickly as I can... no one can find them like I can, if they're still there to be found."
Aseph understood the flicker of emotions across Alioth's features, deep in his eyes. Likewise, for him to give over information to Aseph was just as deeply treasonous "I've heard...rumors... of Asmodian units pushed into Kadarin. I have no solid information, my friend. But...with time running out, that's where I'd go if I were looking for them."
"That's damned near in Elysia."
"The Balaur are pushing hard. If you do this, Aseph, I won't be able to help you. In fact, I will loudly deny that I even know you... I have family. A wife, a daughter..."
"I'm not asking, Alioth, and I'd turn it down if you offered."
"My friend, if you'd only been born in Elysia..."
Aseph snorted, but this time he finally had a worthy answer to that one. "Alioth, if I'd been born in Elysia, I wouldn't have a chance in hell of getting that one to look upon me well." He jerked his chin towards Moriah. "And that would be a shame, indeed."
The man guffawed, "I was wondering that, but I've discovered I'm not that adept at judging your women. She seems pretty enough, I guess. Gifted cleric, no doubt. But I can never quite get used to all that hair. The claws."
"She's quite lovely." Was as far as Aseph was willing to go with that. "Thank you for the save, and the information, Alioth. I will repay you."
"I think we're even...again."
Aseph shrugged, that was quite possible, but he'd honestly stopped keeping score quite a long time ago. "Soren! Let's move out." They were running out of time if this was true. And the truth of this was the only hope they still had. If this was wrong, then it was over.
For the first time since they'd left Primum, Moriah sensed that Tebber was uncertain. He'd been nothing but an unwavering compass, but no longer. He stood on the edge of a floating chunk and stared out into the emptiness of the Abyss. "Kadarin?" He repeated the word that Aseph had dropped, as if he hoped, no expected, laughter and for it be called back as a joke. "That's in the sunlight, Aseph. I...don't exactly know where it is."
"Then we'll just have to find it."
It was also the first time that Moriah sensed doubt in Aseph's leadership. They'd been willing to follow him this far, but it seemed like this might just be their limit. Did it actually stop here?
Ras. Was still out there. She had to believe that. She had to keep going...
"Aseph, I told you I'd follow you to the ends of the world." Soren stated, his tone steely. "It looks like you've finally decided to call me on it. If you say we go to Kadarin, then we go. Moriah?"
"I go on." Going back wasn't an option.
That one's silence was more doubt. Moriah glanced at Aseph, but he had his back to them, faced deep into the Abyss. He nodded, as if he'd been spoken to, and stepped off of the edge. Moriah jumped into a run, building up speed, shadowed by Soren. She fought the urge to look back, to wonder. If they came, then they came. If they didn't, then the best of luck to them to find their way back.
By an hour later, it became obvious that it was just the three of them pressing forward. "Aseph." Soren asked, "How are you holding up?"
"We can pick up the pace if you like. Moriah can keep up with us."
He didn't so much as glance back, but his speed picked up, and Moriah was surprised. He was the shortest, he had a less expansive wingspan, but he made up for it in speed and grace. "We'll make the transition to sunlight in a couple of hours." Aseph noted gloomily, and Moriah blinked. Never in her life, had she actually been in sunlight She was born of shadows, raised in Atreia's twilight. "It's going to be very bright, Moriah. We'll stop on the verge to acclimate, and I have glasses." He sounded resigned, sad, and her heart wanted to break. She had thought she understood that this would be difficult. But the truth was worse. She was tired. Filthy. Scared. And, on the edge of her perceptions, she knew she was at the limit of her own obelisk. It set up a constant fret, a never-ending worry in her soul. "We need to stop when we can." She stated, and got Aseph's first actual glance since they'd been abandoned by the other two. "I'm at the edge of my obelisk. I need to kisk."
Soren muttered a profanity, and she knew he wasn't far behind her. His was closer, actually located in the Abyss, but hers had been the more powerful.
"Understood." Aseph stated, and a few minutes later, found a rock big enough to support the three of them. "Suggestions, Soren?"
"We follow their path in. If there are our units at Kadarin, they had to have gotten there by flying. We know where they started at. We can intercept their path, and follow them. I don't like the idea of blindly flying, into sunlight, and into Elysia."
Moriah nodded when both pairs of eyes landed on her questioningly. It made as much sense, or more, than any idea she might be able to come up with. And now was not the time to question, or to pause. They had reached the end of that. "Agreed."
She pulled the kisk from her Cube, feeling its warmth through her palms. It already carried Aseph's link, she could feel him within it. And now, it would carry hers as well... she rested her forehead against its warmth. Soren moved closer, looming over her, and held his hands out when she was done. "All of us." He breathed, accepting it from her and linking to it. "Let's go get this over with."
It was simply the most amazing thing that Moriah had ever seen, dawn breaking on the verge, the edge between Asmodae and Elysia. The light moved like a shadow, a tide, only bright instead of dark. "It's beautiful." She murmured, stunned. She knew, of course, that Elysia basked in sunlight, and Asmodae shaded in twilight. She'd seen plenty of illustrations in the tomes of the Temple, the works in the Convent, to intellectually grasp the mechanics of how and why.
"Imagine the world as a room." Master Harben had chuckled. "Light spills from a window onto the floor below it. Elysia is that floor, and Asmodae, the shadowed rafters of the ceiling above."
Soren stood beside her, silent. "It is." He finally agreed. "I've never been to Elysia during the daylight."
Of course not, even if he had done rifting raids there, those would be scheduled for darkness, to expand upon their ability to see in uncertain light, and to keep them from being blinded. Darkness was their home, their comfort, and their armor.
"It will get blinding quickly enough." Aseph muttered, butting her with a quick elbow. He was holding up a pair of glasses to her, their lenses smoky and dark. "Come on. The novelty will wear off soon enough, I promise."
The day was beyond brilliant. It was glaringly, blindingly bright, even through the smoked glasses that Moriah wore. It was hot, she could feel the sun beating down even through the voluminous cloak and hood she had pulled down as far as it would go. They didn't have the luxury to move at night, when they'd all be more comfortable. It had been a month since they'd left Primum. They'd more than run out of time, this had already become a lost cause and a fool's errand. Even the raw joy of seeing the sun for the first time in her life had dimmed, even if the light refused to. She was so far away, and no amount of telling herself what a great adventure this was would even begin to raise the growing unease in her heart. Without Tebber and Petric, no one spoke more than terse, necessary, locked sentences. Aseph had barely said two sentences to her, and none of them shared the insight, the rapport, she had felt growing between them in the Abyss.
I want to go home.
She had lost it all. The hope to find Ras. The determination of a daeva. Even the tiniest sprout of a newborn relationship that she hadn't even realized was growing until it died. This was all just a grinding, mocking duty that would end in sorrow...
Aseph moved like a gust of wind, barreling Soren to his knees, and tucking Moriah into his grasp as he rolled into a ball across the ground and behind a small rise. The first arrow passed through where Soren's center mass had been, the second hit the rocks at about the same place behind where Moriah had been.
"Ranger." Aseph muttered into her shoulder.
"Didn't see. I was...not paying enough attention."
"You're forgiven. Now go find out." She longed to hold him for a second longer, but let him go. There was no time. He vanished in a blur, and was gone, leaving her alone trying to hide behind a desperately small outcropping. If she was dainty, if she were Annlyn's size, it would be enough. He was gone for just a moment, and an eternity, before his shadow appeared again. He stood to his full height, in the open, extending a hand down to her. Soren was warily clambering to his own feet, and she wished she could see either one of their expressions.
"Moriah." Aseph breathed, awed and jubilant. "We've found them."
Yes, but them didn't necessarily mean him.
"Rasmus. Wake up."
No, the last thing that Ras wanted to do was wake up. He'd just gotten to sleep, and it had been a long time in coming. "Why?" He hissed, covering his eyes with his forearm. No wonder the Elyos were so evil, they grew up in this hellhole...
"Moriah is here."
And that was not even remotely funny. Moriah was safe, right where he'd left her, in Pandaemonium. In the Convent. "Why would you say such a thing?" He groaned, sitting up. The headache that had ridden his temples for the past weeks was unabated. He was desperately thirsty, but they'd been on strict water rations. To find the closest water would mean braving Elysia, with tired and run down troops, but they were close to that level of desperation.
"Because she is. I'd recognize her anywhere, Rasmus."
Ras stood, steeling himself against the glare, and lifted the tent fly. She was like an apparition, a dream, until her golden eyes locked with his. She made a joyous sound, bolting towards him, and threw herself into his arms. "I found you!" She laughed, and his heart sank. It was true. She was here. How, he had no idea. And he just wanted to kill her for it.
"We have relief?" He asked warily, and his sergeant made a noncommittal sound.
"One of the small, fast response recon teams has found us, sir."
And that headache threatened to grow to cataclysmic proportions. "Moriah..." He was speechless. How could express just how horrified he was at her appearance here? She couldn't have done it alone, someone was to blame. And blame he would. Who was insane enough to have brought her this far?
"We have kisks! And flight potions! Food! Water..." And Ras's sergeant was looking at her like she was the second coming of Siel.
"We have locator tags." A whisper of a voice stated at Ras's side, and he glanced down at an assassin lurking in his shadow. "We've marked every stop along the way. I enabled them already, Lord Rasmus. Pandaemonium knows where we are, and how we got here."
"Are you the person who brought Moriah here?" Rasmus let the indignation he felt have full expression in his voice, and the assassin paused, considering, his hood pointed firmly in Moriah's direction. She had a rising flush that Ras recognized all too easily, she was mad. At him.
"Moriah brought herself here." The assassin noted calmly, "I certainly didn't carry her."
"My name?" The assassin chuckled, and threw his hood back, sliding his glasses over and glaring up at Rasmus. Several bystanders set up a wary murmur, but Rasmus had never seen this man before...at least, he didn't think so. The assassin breathed a perfect level of non-description, he was just a scrawny, small, unimpressive example of his race, the sort that made Rasmus wonder if Aion sometimes got it wrong when it blessed souls to become daeva. "Is Aseph."
If it was possible, Rasmus's mouth went even drier. He might not recognize the visage, but he knew the name. "General Aseph." The man was legendary, but Rasmus had never been on any of the fronts that he served on. And he never set foot in Pandaemonium, so there had never been any opportunity to know him socially.
"That's me. Moriah! You found him, now get the job done!"
"That's my ward you're ordering around..." Moriah had always been gently handled by the daeva who surrounded her, protected by Ras's influence and the High Priest's regard. She deserved better than that abrupt statement thrown in her direction like she was some sort of unascended servant.
The smaller man paused, his weight poised viciously on the balls of his feet, but his hands clasped behind his back without threat. "Lord Rasmus." He sighed, "I think you and I need to come to a very quick understanding. Moriah is your ward, indeed. She is also my unit's cleric. I will give her instructions until I release her from that service on Primum, do I make myself quite clear?"
"Nnnnnn..." His sergeant stepped on his foot, digging claws down, and Rasmus bit back his words. "I understand, General Aseph." He ground out, and the smaller man gave him a near smiling grimace in acceptance, clicked his heel claws together and bowed, on just the proper edge of insulting before he stalked away.
"What an ass." Rasmus grumbled and his sergeant shrugged. Off all of the forces for Moriah to have fallen in with, she'd left Primum with that? Now, he understood all too well why the man was not in Pandaemonium society...he was downright uncouth.
"Ass, but he gets the job done. No one else could have found us, sir."
And that was probably the truth. With everything that he knew, he didn't see how they had been found anyway. It was a miracle. If the miracle didn't come with Moriah being placed in this sort of danger, he would have celebrated it as the soldiers around him were.
"Ras?" And no matter how mad he got, he couldn't stay mad at her. He accepted the packet she offered up to him, he was starving...so thirsty, a shadow of his usual self.
"I'm sorry, Moriah. I just never, ever thought I'd see you here. Why are you?"
"I came to find you. You'd come to find me, you have before."
"There's a world of difference between going to Alsig to take you back from a few Lepharists, and going to the edge of Elysia during a Balaur push..." There was an edge in his voice that he would love to take back, and by her raised brow, she heard and interpreted it correctly, but she did not pause in pulling supplies from her Cube and setting them in a ponderous order before her. "You're supposed to be at the Convent."
"I left it."
Well, that was obvious. "And General Aseph?" She gave him a look he'd seen a thousand times before, on other women's faces. It was a look he'd been both eagerly looking forward to, and dreading, every day since she'd matured. It was classic, the slight flush, her teeth worrying her bottom, and the vaguely guilty look. Annlyn had worn that look when she was younger. "That?!" He whispered in disbelief. She had to mean the other one, the imposing gladiator...
"It looked that way, for a little bit. But I don't think so anymore." She gave him a slightly downcast look.
"You didn't, he didn't..." He was going to kill the man. He didn't care if Aseph really was one of the Governor's most prized combatants and Generals, they could find a replacement.
"No. We didn't. Nothing untoward, Rasmus." She picked up a pile of supplies and moved towards the gladiator, handing them out as she went along. Ras watched her go, eyes narrow. For the first time in their relationship he wasn't quite certain he believed her. The hint of a lie, a deception, or of a brushing off was there. Not quite your business, even if I did...which I didn't.
He shook his head, pinching the bridge of his nose. He needed to sleep. Drink his fill, and he'd feel better afterward.
"I'm sorry, I never expected..." Moriah sat next to him, and Aseph snorted in amusement.
"Never expected your guardian to be less than pleased that you traveled across half of Atreia, through the Abyss, through the Balaur, to the edge of Elysia, with two men you didn't know?"
She gave him a slightly narrow look, and he shrugged. He was in mood to pander to her, just like he'd been in no mood to pander to her guardian. He understood the man's reaction, but it was not Aseph's place to soothe his ruffled feathers. He was tired, but then, they all were. Tempers were short.
"Have I done something, Aseph? Something wrong?"
"No." She remained silent, and he shook his head. "No, Moriah, you've done nothing wrong. You've done everything right, in fact."
She played with the edge of her robes, and he noticed that they were fraying. They'd been new just weeks ago, and now, they were shabby, threadbare,stained and filthy. Half of her footclaws were shattered down to the quicks and poorly repaired, the beautiful knives she'd been wearing removed. The other side was the side she'd grabbed him with, and he flinched at the thought. "Moriah?"
"I thought..." Her chin trembled and she stared ahead, angrily fighting against the tears he heard in her voice. "I was foolish to think you liked me?"
"No." He glanced around, feeling furtive eyes on them. He'd always been a desperately private soul, but she was correct. He'd done the leading, she'd been amenable to his advances, and then... "Come here." He sighed, patting the patch of dust right next to him. She complied, sliding over, and he wrapped a companionable arm around her shoulder and pulled her into him. "This run has been much harder than even I was expecting, Moriah. I never thought Tebber and Petric would bow out on me. It took much longer than I was expecting. I'm tired. You're tired." He buried his face in the plume of hair he loved so much, the point where the hair on her head became her mane.
"I smell badly." She noted wryly and he grinned, knowing she couldn't see his expression. Like this, no one could.
"As do I."
"I'm acting like an idiot."
"No. But now isn't the time, and here isn't the place. Right now I just want to focus on getting us back in one piece, Moriah. Then, we can figure things out. I don't want to say anything, do anything, when I feel like this. If I did, it would be the wrong thing... I know enough to see that."
"Fair enough. How long before we see support?" There were more troops here than Moriah had been expecting. Many of them were in poor shape, too poor to even contemplate a return trip the way that they had come. She wasn't certain if she was up to it either, and the option of transportation by suicide had passed. She was linked to the kisk in her Cube, she was going nowhere.
"Hopefully sooner than you'd think. We gave them weeks to set down the casting for this portal... If they haven't, heads will roll. I think you'll be back in Pandaemonium by tonight, honestly... we don't want to give the Elyos any more of an opportunity than they've already had here."
As if his very words had summoned it, a line of blue flame transcribed the largest flat plane in the encampment, growing slowly in a billow of shadow. "Portal!"
Moriah bounded to her feet, but Aseph was already halfway across the space to it by the time she was completely upright. He was joined, shoulder to shoulder, Soren on his right, and Rasmus to his left. It was a glorious sight, right in the depth of her soul, and she moved up behind the three most important men in her life, beginning to feel their health through the air around them. There was nothing for a long moment, and then a vanguard of Asmodian legionnaires stepped through, giant men with their shields locked before them, black wings unfurled over their backs. Another followed, just three strides behind them, and Moriah took a shortened breath in response. She had no idea who this man was, but he wafted power, confidence, and a vast presence with every motion. He wore ornate armor, but the gleam had been worn off of it a long time ago, it had seen wear, use...it was not for show. He pulled off his helm the moment he would have caught full sight of the three before him, he had the pale hair of a Asmodian blond, colorless as pure smoke.
"General Aseph." He had just the voice she would have guessed, deep, strong, commanding. Not harsh, but not at all melodic.
"Commander Summan." Aseph's response was wary and respectful. And, by his identification, he had every right to be... he might be a General, which was an impressive rank, but an Army Commander outshone that.
"Our concern was growing, General Aseph." The man gazed around the encampment, and then he squinted up into the pale blue sky. "But I see two things... one, you succeeded, and two, that you had to come to Elysia to do it. A job to be proud of. Take your squad and return to Primum, I'll hear your report there... and the report of the two who returned to Primum without you."
Aseph's expression settled into blank acceptance, and Moriah sighed. She didn't know what he had planned to report about that, and now it didn't matter. "As you command. Soren, Moriah, with me."
She nodded, falling into step behind him. The portal was a wisp of chill, and then, Primum just beyond it. There were hundreds of soldiers there, all with their attentions locked firmly on the point they appeared at. A second of tense silence reigned as they were measured, identified, and ragged applause followed. "General Aseph! They've been found?"
"The units have been located, and there are survivors. Now, if you do not mind..." He reached blindly behind him, shooing Moriah forward, "We have reports to make. Make ready for the evacuation."
He strode across the parade grounds, headed for the fortress headquarters complex, and Moriah hopped to keep up with him. It was an odd and heady experience to have grown soldiers step out of her way, even if she understood that Aseph was truly the one who commanded the respect. They were shown into a meeting room, blissfully dim and quiet, dominated by a large table and several chairs. Aseph settled into one, and she chose the one next to him after he glanced meaningfully at her and then dropped his eyes to it. Soren took the one directly across from him, leaning back, resting a clawed foot on his knee, folding his arms over his chest, and staring at the ceiling. Their unease was contagious, and Moriah counted her breaths. This couldn't wait? No dinner, no bath, no bed, no clean clothes or even a comb and a basin of fresh water? They'd done the near impossible, so why did it feel like the few times she'd been called into the dean's office to discuss her youthful shortcomings?
"After this." Aseph said when it seemed like the silence would go on forever. His voice startled Soren, who stared at him for a long moment. "I want you to return to Pandaemonium, Moriah. If you're asked, you are still attached to my unit. When word of this gets out..."
"You'll have every legion officer around trying to recruit you." Soren nodded slowly. "Fair assessment."
"And you?" Moriah had heard many, many times that Aseph didn't go to Pandaemonium. In fact, it seemed as if he'd never even been there, as difficult as that was for her to believe.
"I will be returning to Brusthonin to reset my obelisk..." The door opened, and he silenced immediately. Tebber was the first over the doorway, followed closely by Petric. Both of them looked beyond scolded, in fact, if Moriah had to find words to describe their demeanor, she'd lean towards terrified or whipped. The Army Commander, Summan, brought up the rear. He'd removed most of his armor, but none of his aura.
"I believe, General Aseph, that these two are yours..." He said without pause or greeting, moving without hesitation towards the massive chair at the head of the table and sitting there.
"They...were." Aseph stated cautiously. "What they are now remains to be determined."
"Are they deserters?"
Aseph froze, and Moriah did her best to remain expressionless, focusing her attention on the gleaming surface of the table. Deserters? That was a terrible crime, one that could take centuries to live down... "No." Aseph answered. "My people follow me voluntarily, Commander. The moment they choose not to, they are released. If they lose faith in my abilities, then I must have failed. But on this mission especially, if they lost sight of what we were after, then quite bluntly, I no longer wanted them along. After this, I may no longer want them in my unit. But they are not deserters, milord. This was not a normal mission..."
"Indeed it was not, General. But you are, or were, their commanding officer. If you say that they are not deserters, then they are not deserters. Enough said. Do you feel that the two of them served heroically, above and beyond the call, on this mission?"
Tebber opened his mouth, obviously he meant to reply, but Petric only stared at him for a long, cold moment, and the ranger didn't let the reply go, but went back to scrutinizing the floor. "Then they are dismissed." That was more than enough for Petric, who grabbed Tebber's sleeve and forcefully pushed him to, and through, the door, closing it firmly behind them.
"Shame." The Commander breathed, "To sully a success like this one. But you are correct, General, we asked for a great deal. And your unit still delivered. This is Soren, and this..." His dark eyes fell squarely upon Moriah, "Must be Moriah, then. Lord Rasmus's ward, High Priest Balder's protegee. I've heard much of her, but seen little."
"This is Moriah." There was an edge to Aseph's voice, and Soren flinched.
"Aseph..." He warned, and Aseph stared right back at him. Neither seemed willing to back down, until the Commander chuckled, breaking the spell.
"If you've found a cleric who can keep up with you, General Aseph, then the absolute last thing in the world I want to see happen is to have someone else impress her out from underneath you. She's yours, I just wanted to be able to put a face to the name. Your plans now are..?"
"A breather. Down time, unless there's something direly important that needs us this very moment. I need to rekisk. I need to take a long, hard look at my personnel issues..."
"You need to consider reporting to Pandaemonium." The sentence was gently presented, but founded in steel. "Your refusal to do so is bordering on insubordination, General. Especially after this report..." The man slapped a leather folder, tied in red ribbons, on the tabletop. "...Makes it way to the Capital. It's going to be damned difficult to give you a home grant in Pandaemonium when you won't go there to receive it. And it would be beyond gauche..." His glance fell firmly on Soren, then slid to Moriah, "To grant the ones to your subordinates before you receive yours."
A home grant. Moriah felt her eyes widen, as much as she fought to maintain her composure. A home. In Pandaemonium. That was beyond a gift, it was a stellar honor... It would free her from the increasing hints of Rasmus's family that it was time to leave his care, free her from the assumption that she would move to the Convent. Once there, there would be more assumptions, and Moriah was tired of following other peoples' assumptions.
"I can assume that you will forward your report in due time, General." The man stood, "But it would be most happily received delivered by your own hand...to the Capital Building." He tucked the folder under his arm, nodded to Aseph and Soren, and swept into a graceful bow to Moriah before he strode out of the door.
The silence in his wake was deafening, and suddenly Moriah was very tired of it all. Or she was just tired, she wasn't certain which. "I'm going home." She sighed, standing. "I want a bath. My own bed. Food."
"I will send word." Aseph muttered gloomily, and she shrugged, leaving and striding down the ominously dark corridor. She was airborne before her feet hit the parade ground, and through the ring to Morheim before anybody had the opportunity to slow her progress. And just minutes after Morheim, she appeared in Pandaemonium, home again.