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Wade

Let's Make A Deal [Stormlands]

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“Start talking. Skim the bullshit, if you can. I’m in a bad mood.”

The draconian steps forward, and like a ballroom waltz, Iris takes a step back, as if in fear of the hulking creature moving closer to her own personal space. “I—please, just—don’t hurt me, I’ll talk, I’ll talk,” spills from her lips, almost foreign in the way the words bleed with poorly-concealed trepidation, dripping with no small measure of panic. “They—they were hunting me, and I—I just barely managed to—and then I saw your ship crash and then those strange monster things and I—I did help a bit, as best I can, but,” she glances down at the visible gun holster along her thigh, “but then—then the rain,” and here her voice begins to shake, takes on the beginnings of a whimper, “my—my eyes are—I can’t,” she cuts herself off at the sound of approaching footsteps, shying away further from the nearest door as she cries into her clenched fist, as if trying to swallow the sobs away before she lets herself break down in front of strangers.

Iris thanks every bit of foresight that she had taken away the blindfold before stepping into the light.

"So, why do you need handcuffs?"

Another man enters the control room, takes one long look at her, and immediately reaches for his weapon, if that quiet snick she had heard is to be trusted.

Gaia-be-fucked, of all the individuals she could have ended up with, it had to be a crew rampant with paranoia and trigger-finger suspicion. Perhaps she could have had a better chance with the other ship, Iris muses, a touch of irritation sparking up her fingertips. She visibly bites down on her lip, as if willing the whimpers to cease as the man speaks.

"Don't touch her until we know what she is. Pretty please."

How thoughtful of him. Mother would have loved to have made an acquaintance out of him.

Her face does not twitch, does not let the expression of lost-woman-frightened slip from her face for even the barest of seconds. She feels no fear; fear had been burned out of her by her Mother decades ago.

“Please, just,” Iris offers her wrists forward, pale and scarred and vulnerable in the lowlight, voice shaking like a leaf against the power of a storm, “if you must. You—you don’t have to touch me, and I won’t fight you. I can’t fight you.” She lets her sightless gaze wander aimlessly, her pale, tightened lips speaking volumes on her apparent situation: she is a lone, blinded woman outnumbered by the crew in both manpower and weaponry. What danger can she post, in that regard? If anything, they are the ones spelling danger to her own wellbeing.

“Please, I—you can lock me up somewhere, if you—you don’t trust me.” If you’re that wary of petrified little me, she thinks, allows the thought to show along the wounded crow’s feet around her eyes, the question-mark-curve of her spine. The quiet addition of and you should be does not unravel over her mask, kept under mental lock and key. “I know I wouldn’t if—if some stranger came by just like this—just like me.”

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“Cuff her.” 

Without question or hesitation, Klavier stepped forward. He didn’t move particularly fast but the suddenness of it was rather alarming. Echo watched carefully as the first clamp came down, not lowering her pistol until the second clicked into place, and breathed an internal sigh of relief when Klavier escorted the woman out of the bridge. She waited a moment, just so she could slump in her chair, stare at the wall, let her mind veg, then slowly got out of her chair as if the simple effort of it pained her.

“The next time you have kinky thoughts about me,” she said to Ram. “I will filet you like a fish.”

She let him gulp for that quick second before gesturing for him to follow her. 

The Casimir’s galley, like every other section of the ship, was an impressive piece of style and comfort that sacrificed little in the ways of utility. The general motif was a combination crisp white and warm wood, governing a space full of long tables and chairs, all of which were bolted to the floor in the event of high-speed maneuvers. There weren’t many decorations save for a few strategically-placed plants they’d grown in hydroponics, and the only thing Echo felt was missing was a bowl of fruit, since it seemed kind of weird they weren’t growing those too.

On the same token, the galley was huge. Big enough to fit twenty to thirty people, as the Casimir had originally been built for a crew of that size. Consequently, the room felt slightly larger than necessary when Echo and Ram walked in. They had all this space to themselves, just to remind them they were severely understaffed.

Sitting in a large pan was the stir fry Klavier had been cooking earlier. It was still warm, so Echo didn’t bother with the microwave. She spooned some into two bowls, then handed Ram the one with the most in it, and they took up seating together at the island.

“Finally,” Echo mumbled, shovelling a mouthful of chicken and mixed peppers. “All we’re missing now are a couple of beers-“

A sudden lurch nearly sent her toppling out of her seat. The ship groaned, and the floor began to tilt at an odd angle.

“Fucking hell.” Echo righted herself back up, swore some more when she saw her food had spilled onto the floor, and craned her head as the wind outside gradually evolved into a steady thrum. 

Looks like we’re moving. Her gut churned at the thought. Where they were moving to, though, that was the question. It had been plaguing her since the hangar bay, even subconsciously the whole time she’d been pointing her gun at the intruder, and odds were it would continue to plague her all night, all day, until they finally arrived at their destination.

Ugh. 

“You know what,” she said, standing up. “I’m not as hungry as I thought. You mind cleaning that up? I’m going to go check up on our prisoner and then I think I’m going to bed.” 

Echo left the bridge with two more bowls in her hands. No more than a minute later, the brig doors opened to greet her. Inside, Klavier was sitting in a corner chair by an empty desk. A wall of opaque bulletproof glass separated him from the prisoner. 

Echo handed him a bowl. “She talk yet?”

Klavier accepted the bowl with a grateful nod that quickly turned into a shake of his head. “No,” he said, nearly finishing his food in a single bite. “Thought I’d wait for you. You’re better at this kind of thing than I am.”

“Maybe.” Echo took a seat beside him. She fiddled with a dial on the desk, and the bulletproof glass went from opaque to clear. “I’m not really used to people crying. Makes it hard to bitch at them, and that’s kind of what I do.” 

Klavier swallowed. “Then this should be interesting.”

“Hopefully not,” Echo sighed, examining the prisoner and her cell. She was no longer handcuffed, nor dripping wet, and there was a set of clean clothes ready for her at the end of her bunk. “I’ve had enough of ‘interesting’ for one day.”

Sliding open a box-like compartment on her side of the wall, she placed the second bowl inside of it.

“Eat up.” She spoke into a mic protruding from the desk, and her voice projected inside of the prisoner’s cell. “When you’re done, I’m going to want some more information. After that, I promise Dr. Ram will have a look at you. Sound alright to you?”

Edited by Wade

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Cali was trying to remember the rules of being a hostage, though it was a bit dull to him. The ship that was currently carrying them to whomever this 'boss' was had suspisously appeared after the crash, thus if it were them that had shot the ship down they must have what ever weapon that was.

To look at it now would be foolish, cameras would be looking out for that hidden ones most likely so wait he did until he heard something 

On 1/29/2019 at 10:46 PM, vielle said:

“Start talking. Skim the bullshit, if you can. I’m in a bad mood.”

. “I—please, just—don’t hurt me, I’ll talk, I’ll talk,”

. “They—they were hunting me, and I—I just barely managed to—and then I saw your ship crash and then those strange monster things and I—I did help a bit, as best I can, but,”  “but then—then the rain,”

"Poor hitch hiker guess they will be joining us for this wonderful trip to whoknows land" he mumbled as a thought came to mind

("Wait they dont know she's here do they?")

Hence if all goes well she could work like an espionage unit yet they needed to make sure that these people did not know she was here

If they didn't know already that was.

So he marched to

(Im going to edit later but basicly he gives the captian suggestions on turning the new prisoner into a temporary espionage unit)

Edited by Hurttoto

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There was only one question that circled around his head like some kind of bug.

Is she blind?

“Cuff her.” 

Ramsey grimaced. He said 'pretty please'.

Despite his warning, they went ahead and did exactly what he didn't want them to do. Touching her without knowing what she was, or wherever the hell she came from. Now what was he gonna do if the big lizard man gets an even bigger throbbing infection? He may be a doctor, but he doesn't do that part of the job—the whole, take this prescription with my crappy damn handwriting, no, he's a surgeon. He puts his hands arms-deep in people (literally, not figuratively) and pulls their guts out for a living. Whatever happens to Klavier and the rest of the crew, he'll leave it Winter.

Back to the situation in-hand,

the gun lowers and it spins back into where it belongs. He watched the mystery woman in cuffs get dragged out the bridge and observed a few seconds of what he believed to be peculiar behavior before she and Klavier got out of his sight. Assuming his dog was still in the medbay, with the new guy, he turned to walk away until—

“The next time you have kinky thoughts about me,” Echo started. From the way she was slouched down in her chair, nobody could've suspected she was but a few inches taller than him. “I will filet you like a fish.”

Now that his mask slid down, it showed how much he was puzzled by the look on his face. Ramsey replied by dropping his mouth and pushing his tongue against the inside of his cheek; cheeky. "Rude of you to assume." He grumbled, "If it makes you feel better, I was staring at the girl." and, Echo turned, gesturing for him to follow. He trailed behind and came up beside her, the ends of a white coat chasing after his shoes.

They eventually arrived at the Casimir's Galley, which reminded him that he was in this mess thanks to Sinclair. It was an intrusive thought, but he remembered he wasn't even part of the Casimir's crew and her three other mates. Before they crashed in the Stormlands where acid is rain and golems flock like vultures, Echo somehow managed to convince Ramsey to do stupid shit as her partner of crime for the day. She was obviously punished with a supply job, but Ramsey got also had consequences so he had to come along, too. Now, he wasn't about to complain that this bombshell blonde is going to be the reason why he gets blown off the face of the map one day; but because he got in trouble in the first place.. he actually got to have more than two hours of sleep. The doctor was clearly a different person without any sleep and on the verge of consuming every ounce of coffee in the military, but now that he passed out for a day straight without any phone calls screaming beside his ear, it was like he was worlds apart from getting stressed the hell out.

Or so he thought.

Ram sat across Echo, happily taking the bowl of stir-fry off of her hands in a heartbeat. Somehow, those simple movements were precise; elegant. Then they became shaky, panicky—and crashed on the table with a painful thud! He didn't even get to taste the veggies on his spoon because he slammed himself chin-down on their table and managed to save his food by sacrificing his, "Oow, fuck," he hissed. "my fucking pectoral muscles. Son of a.. bitch."

The last thing he heard before he crashed against the rim of the table was 'beer'. He carefully placed his stir-fry on the awkwardly angled table and crossed his arms over his chest. 

"You know what?" Echo stood from the floor. He was going to tell her that there was a jalapeno stuck in her hair, but his man breasts were hurting a little. “I’m not as hungry as I thought. You mind cleaning that up? I’m going to go check up on our prisoner and then I think I’m going to bed.” 

"Sounds like a good idea," Ramsey squeezed out, hearing a faint jingle of a tiny bell and it's tiny little paws running across the floor. He threw a glance over the direction of the sound and expressed a deep sigh. 

His name is Chief, and he's a good dog.

He was probably the equivalent of a brown-yellow furred fluffball and the size of a soda can, shoving the piles of stir-fry into it's jaws of death. Cheek pressed against the veggie-covered table, Ramsey supposed he could have Chief clean up the mess for him.

 

Edited by SweetCyanide

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The silence of her newfound cell is a welcome refuge against the faint aching beat, the stirrings of a headache brewing at the back of her head. As much as she has been bred to be strong, trained to be impassive, an impenetrable fortress on all fronts—Iris Soroko is still only human, and the mind that bears this body is altogether disappointed at its vessel’s limitations.

Perhaps her Mother can provide a better body for her someday. Perhaps.

She changes into the clean clothes laid out for her, unseeing of and uncaring for any eyes that might’ve caught on the hardened lines of her form, those scars stark against pale skin, and then she takes a seat in the middle of the room, cross-legged and staring straight ahead. She had once frightened a princess this way, laying motionless for hours then snapping into action as easily as a flipped light switch. Of course, this is an entirely different situation, and so she allows her spine to curl inward, hunched and weary under an invisible burden. The ship lurches then, for a brief moment, and she lets her body sway to the rhythm, move with the push and pull: this is temporary. This will bring her to Freestone.

To her left, a compartment slides open and shut, and the scent of food wafting up to her nose summons a rather embarrassing growl from her stomach. Will acts of humiliation never cease?

“Eat up. When you’re done, I’m going to want some more information. After that, I promise Dr. Ram will have a look at you. Sound alright to you?”

Iris lets a shudder run through her, as if startled by the sudden burst of noise into the room. Wordlessly, she nods in reply to the query and lifts herself up from the floor, pads quietly in the direction of the scent and takes the bowl. She returns to her seat and finishes eating without further comment; to have been given the chance to eat would then provide the opportunity to polish the food off before anything else.

When they arrive at their destination, there might not be time for eating with casual leisure.

“Have you ever heard of a man named Reokhe?” The spiel begins with a question, as all spiels do. “A beast of a father, a snake of a businessman. Took children,” she gestures to herself, “from their lives to do his dirty bidding. I wanted to—to right a few wrongs, is all, and now he’s up and disappeared. My initial search for him, well, let’s say I got in trouble with the law after that. Ran out here, looking for a man who may no longer be living.” She shakes her head, a bitter smile dripping sour on her lips. “Now look what good it’s done me,” Iris sighs, her voice cracking on the last few syllables, not entirely unplanned.

She closes her eyes, then, leans her forehead against her knee and breathes, her last vestiges of energy seemingly spent. Their arrival to Freestone cannot come soon enough.

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Echo was dreaming of flying buildings and screaming boulders when a loud buzzing woke her to a pitch-black cabin. She struggled for a moment with the sheets of her bed before she noticed a static red 7:00 floating above her nightstand. The alarm clock buzzed again. She bumped it firmly on the head. The buzzer rang a third time until she noticed the clock had nothing to do with the sound. With a soft groan, she hauled herself out of bed and pressed the wall panel to open up comms.  

“Are we there yet?” she yawned, not bothering to cover her mouth.

Carter didn’t seem to mind, simply because he wasn’t there to see it. “We’re slowing down, so I believe that’s an affirmative. Looks like they’re taking us down to some sort of cave. Really big one, too.”

“Like how big?”

Big big.”

“Shit,” Echo said. “That’s big.” 

“Yeah.” She heard the wry smile in his voice. “Want me to gather the crew?”

Echo left the speaker active and dimmed the tint of her cabin’s windows. There was just enough light to keep her from squinting. “Please,” she replied, changing into grey cargo pants and a navy blue jacket. “Would you mind putting on another pot of coffee while you’re at it?”

“Already taken care of.”

Echo gave a silent prayer of thanks. “You're the best, dad.”

“Hey, c’mon. I’m not that old.”

“You kind of are.” She bent down to tighten her bootlaces. “Nobody grows a moustache anymore. I’ll see you in five, alright?”

“Roger that.” The connection plunked out like the abrupt end of a phone call. Echo double-checked to make sure she had everything on her. Phone, wallet, gun - couldn’t forget that - watch, earbuds, mana hypo. Looked about right. She couldn’t think of anything else that was missing aside from a few toys locked up in the armoury, which she’d most definitely visit before the day got any more exciting. Satisfied, she stepped out of her quarters and made her way to the galley, then towards the bridge with a stainless steel thermos in hand. 

Carter was waiting for her in his usual chair. Meanwhile, Klavier stood at the end of the walkway. He was leaning against the railing, staring out the window, and Echo moved to join him so she could also get a good look at the cave Carter mentioned.

It was vaguely shaped like the jaws of a shark, she thought, built into the face of a smooth plateau. There were crooked rock formations jutting from the canyon it overlooked, hiding it from afar and potentially from above. In the recesses of its maw, past the curtain of toxic rain, she was able to make out a variety of twinkling lights. Lightning struck the roof the cavern, once and then twice, and it almost looked like it struck the exact same spot on both occasions. 

“How’s it going?” she asked casually.

“Oh, you know,” Klavier folded his arms, matching the lightness of her tone. “Bunch of officers entering a pirate haven. That usually goes over pretty well.”

“Usually.” Echo sipped her coffee. “How’s our guest doing?”

“Wonderful. She finds her accommodations quite accommodating.”

Echo chuckled. “Did she tell you that herself?”

“No, but she meditated the whole time. Figured things have to be pretty zen if she’s going to do that.” Klavier pushed off from the railing to look at her. “You realize she’s blind, right? Ram confirmed it last night.”

“I thought so.” Echo frowned at the thought. “Makes you wonder how she managed to sneak into our ship - specifically, through the hole in our roof - when she can’t even see.” 

“It’s possible her vision deteriorated right after she got in.”

“Seems kind of convenient, don’t you think?” Echo took another sip from her thermos, then tapped a finger below her eye. “I doubt it works that fast. If it did, she should’ve been blind a long time ago. Notice how she wasn’t wearing any sort of protective gear for her eyes?”

Thinking about it now, the whole story felt a little off. It made Echo feel naive for having softened her suspicions, all because there were too many unknowns to consider. 

“I guess it doesn’t really matter now,” she shrugged, gazing at the fast-approaching cave. “But if we get the chance, I want her in the med bay for a proper examination, using proper equipment. And then after that, I want a proper interrogation.” 

Echo stepped back and settled into the captain’s chair. 

“Otherwise, I’m sure our new pirate friends will be happy to shed some light on her case.”

 


 

The Casimir’s crew, including their prisoner, stood in the cargo bay while the ramp slowly made its descent. Echo stood at the edge, outfitted in a red envirosuit, with an assault rifle gripped in a firm rubber grip. She’d decided to keep the helmet on, even though the cavern provided safety from the rain. Partly because she didn’t trust air, fearing it would be humid, but mostly because its prismatic faceplate had a good record of keeping skulls bullet-free. Hopefully the situation wouldn’t come that. The goal here was survival, and she’d have to remember that the next time she felt the impulse to chew someone out. 

Carter and Klavier were equipped similarly, though the Draconian's suit was tailored to his size. He also held one of Echo's newest railgun models. It was a weapon only he could use efficiently, due to a pair of long, unwieldy rails whose weight and recoil were far too cumbersome for anyone weighing less than half a ton. Echo thought him menacing, in a proud, maternal sort of way. She tried her best to emulate the casual irritation of his posture.

The ramp finished lowering, and the lights above it blared green. A platoon of armoured guards waited for them on the ground outside. Echo took the first step, keeping her gun in a neutral position, measuring her stride to appear as non-threatening as possible. Darnell and his crew stood among the encircling force, and he tried on a smile that was clearly meant to provoke. 

Fortunately, Echo was too busy examining their surroundings to pay him any attention. Of all the things she had expected, it wasn’t a small city. Steel towers emerged from the cavern’s floor and ceiling, like giant stalagmites and stalactites basking in each other’s electric glow. Twin pillars at the centre ran the whole length as a means of support, with what appeared to be elevators sliding up and down its sides. 

The platform they stood on was part of what passed for an open hangar. Behind them, the Casimir lay helpless in the looming shadow of the HCS Mace. A barely audible hum, characterized by a sporadic tick, warbled the air without pause. Echo identified the noise as coming from an invisible shimmer spanning the cavern’s mouth, and couldn’t help but wonder if these pirates had access to force field technology.

“Welcome to Freestone,” Darnell said, performing a mock bow. “We sincerely hope you’ll enjoy your stay.”

Carter shuffled uncomfortably. “Are we sure these guys are just pirates?” he muttered over comms. 

Echo didn’t answer. The sudden display of power left her infuriatingly tense. It took everything to relax her voice when she turned on her suit’s external speakers. “I expect you’ll continue to honour our terms, Captain?” she said, with a faint uptick near the end of the sentence. 

Darnell cocked an eyebrow. When he understood that she was referring to their earlier deal, the second eyebrow went up in obvious amusement. “Like I said, your weapons don't mean a thing now that you’re here. You so much as point your gun at me and I’ll make sure everyone in the city puts a bullet in your corpse.” His face abruptly sobered and he sniffed indignantly. “Though, I’ll have to make an exception for when you meet the Baron. You understand, surely?”

It wasn’t a question. Just another thinly veiled test of her patience.

“I do,” was all Echo managed to say. 

“Fantastic. Aksis, why don’t you take the lead?” Darnell patted the small robot at his side, then roved his eyes over Klavier. “I’ll follow from the back and make sure our guests behave.”

Aksis blinked. It seemed like a funny feature for a robot to have. Even its movements were different, and not at all…well, robotic. 

“Come with me, please.” It bowed its head, sincerely, Echo noted, and waved for them to follow. A few of the guards switched off their safeties as added encouragement. 

Echo took one final look at the Casimir’s defeated figure. Her faceplate hid her rapidly-deflating cheeks as she turned back around. “Alright, let’s go,” she said, kicking her crew into a stoic march. 

They entered a nearby building, then boarded a tram encapsulated in a tube. It was the kind of thing you’d see at a particularly large airport. A gentle lurch got them out of the station and into a winding ascent, until they glided above Freestone as if they were foreigners on a tour. Most of the ride travelled along the cavern’s wall and rarely dipped into the city itself. A bit of a disappointment, but it offered the better view. From where she sat, Echo was able to discern details she’d initially missed, such as the transparent walkways connecting one building to another; the wafting steam of different industrial blocks; the species of giant fungi used as artificial lighting; and the monumental castle overlooking the entire hollow.

“Why the hell is there a castle?”

All the guards turned to stare at Echo. None of them answered, but none of them looked away either.

“Just saying,” Echo mumbled, more to herself now. “Looks kind of…” 

Stupid? 

“…out of place.”

Eventually, the tram grinded to a halt. They exited at a station sitting by the foot of a steep cliff. A marble staircase climbed all the way to the top, where the castle resided amid a purplish, luminescent jungle. No other visible forms of transport scaled the cliff wall, and Aksis’ first step caused Carter to curse his arthritis softly. 

By the time they reached the top, Echo’s legs were warm with strain. Even her arms were sore from carrying her rifle the whole way. Aksis, being a machine, didn’t easily sympathize with her fatigue, and made an impatient clicking noise as he continued past the amethyst-cut gates. 

“This place is really something,” Klavier whispered, shifting to their private channel. “You’d think the government would have intel on a stronghold this big.” 

“I’m sure they do,” Echo said distantly. She was admiring the hallway’s seamless gem-and-stone architecture. “That doesn’t mean they have to share it with everyone. Remember, I’m still a private.”

“And yet, they gave you an airship.”

“Yeah, and real work. As punishment.” She embellished every syllable. “Only reason I’m not stuck digging a trench out in the boonies is ‘cause HQ values my research too much to put me in any real danger. Chasing after smugglers in a souped-up destroyer should’ve been a cakewalk, but then this shit happened.” 

Klavier acquiesced her point with a nod, then craned his head as they stepped into an atrium. “This castle’s got to be at least a millennia old.”

Echo’s tone was skeptical. “Awfully well-preserved if it is. Doesn’t look a day over a decade, if you ask me.” 

“It’s Elven,” Klavier said simply.

“And what does that have to do with anything?” Ahead of them, another set of gates rose from a miniature flight of stairs. “I understand the cave protected the castle from the rain, but there’s no escaping oxygenation.”

“Echo.”

“What?”

Elves.” A second later, “Magic.

“Ah.” Echo tried to conceal her embarrassment. “Yeah, that makes a uh… how did you know this place was Elven?”

“I have a Bachelors degree in anthropology with a minor in history.”

“Wow.” The word alone contained a world of surprise. “What the hell are you doing in the army then?”

Klaver looked like he was about to shrug, then turned it into a roll of his shoulder as he remembered their conversation was private. “Guess you could say I’m not a huge fan of booby traps or cowboy hats," he said.

"And there aren't any jobs?"

"And there aren't any jobs."

Aksis finally slowed them in front of the elevated gates. The clanging of its feet echoed in the atrium.

“As Darnell said,” it began, voice crackling like kindling. “You cannot proceed with your weapons past this point. Please hand them over to the guards. We will return them if…”

Aksis let the phrase hang in the air, as if debating between words or silence.

In the end, it chose silence.

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“Fine.”

Echo shoved her rifle into the nearest guard’s hands. Then came her pistol, her helmet – it was only accumulating sweat at this point – her tactical knife, two grenades, and a perfunctory smile that looked distinctly pissed off. 

“Are we good?” she said, turning to the next guard. “Or am I going to have to break your teeth when you try to pat me down?”

The guard sized her up, then inquired a look at Aksis. It- or rather, he, nodded, and the guard quietly backed off.

“Follow me,” Aksis said. He pushed the doors open and led them inside.

The first thing Echo noticed were the plants. It was almost like walking into a garden. They weren’t fungi cultures like the ones outside, but rather genuine swaths of green. Many of the walls, which reminded her of a vaulted cathedral, were covered in serpentine vines, while moss textured some of the other surfaces such as the smooth stone echoing their footsteps. Looking at it all, Echo wondered how any of it was possible. There was no rain or sunlight, no soil for anything to grow in. 

Magic, Klavier’s voice reminded her. There was no other explanation.

“Welcome, my friends.”

The Baron sat reclined in his throne. Echo was a little surprised to see that, unlike the plants, he was very, very dead.

Undead, to be precise.

“I trust my men have treated you fairly?” It was disconcerting to hear him speak. He had no lips, no tongue, and yet his voice flowed like honeyed wine.

Echo cleared her throat. “With all due respect, sir, you might be putting your faith in the wrong men.”

“You’ll refer to the Baron as your grace.” Darnell stepped forward, eyeing her with dark, dispassionate eyes. His lips had flattened into a hard line. Echo considered it a victory that she’d managed to spite him so easily. 

The Baron chuckled. “No, I believe ‘sir’ will do just fine.”

Darnell looked up. “But your grace-“

A skeletal hand waved him into silence. “They’re military, correct?” The Baron turned his empty gaze back on Echo. “The terminology might be different but the intent is still the same. Though, I am curious: why have you invited soldiers into my city?”

Darnell swallowed. “I-“

“I believe they may be valuable to you, my lord.”

Echo turned. She’d almost forgotten that Aksis was standing beside her.

The Baron leaned forward. “How so?”

“The golems. They are close. Closer than we expected.” Aksis craned his head cautiously, blinking the optic lenses of his eyes. “They were there when we arrived. Let me show you their coordinates.”

His eyes lit up, projecting a flat hologram into the air. Echo realized after a few seconds that it was a partial map of the Stormlands. 

“Their ship crashed here.” A green dot appeared in a jagged canyon. “The golems that hadn’t reached the landing site yet were coming from here.” Several red dots appeared at a ridge a little further down from the ship. Far more than Echo had counted during the fight. Her chest tightened at the thought.

“I see,” the Baron nodded. His face was unreadable. He didn’t say anything right away, and his guards stiffened in his silence. 

“We cannot keep ignoring this,” Aksis said.

“I know,” The Baron replied evenly. “You still have not answered my question. Why are they here?”

Aksis glanced at the Casimir’s Crew. “Because they will help us.”

One of Echo’s eyebrows subtly shot up. Wait, what are we doing now?

“We can send a strike team to the Orchard,” Aksis continued. “And the soldiers will assist them. We have enough men, yes, but what is the harm in a few more?” 

“You’re suggesting I give them their weapons back?” Oddly, the idea seemed to amuse the Baron.

“It won’t do them any good to betray us,” Aksis clicked. “We have the numbers.” Then, as an afterthought, he said, “They will want us in the Orchard.”

“I-“ The Baron abruptly stopped. “Yes?”

Echo was holding up her hand. 

“I have a question,” she declared.

The Baron stared. “Yes, I can see that.”

“Can I ask it?”

“I would think the answer is obvious.”

“Is that a yes or no?” Echo’s hand remained in the air. “You guys always kill people when they get it wrong in the movies, so I just wanted to make sure we’re all on the same page here.”

Just like her hand, the Baron kept on staring. “And what’s your name, miss?”

“Echo. Echo Sinclair. Captain, not miss.”

The Baron nodded, as if weighing her response. “Go ahead, Captain. Ask your question.”

“What the hell are you guys talking about?”

Darnell instantly shot her another one of his looks.

Meanwhile, the Baron’s gaze lingered on her before he slowly stood up. None of his bones creaked as he started pacing in front of his throne. 

“The golems are a new addition to the Stormlands,” he tested, taking care with each word. “They haven’t always been around. I suppose part of that is our fault, seeing as how we’re the ones who discovered them.”

Echo thought back to the battle, when the first golem had attacked them. It kept screaming on and on and on, something about Idje and vos and dra das ve or some shit.

Where is it?

“They’re looking for something,” she said.

Every head in the room snapped to attention. Echo nearly flinched.

“How do you know that?” the Baron demanded.

“I don’t know.” Echo forced herself to stay calm. “I think I heard one of their voices in my head. It asked me ‘where is it’.” She couldn’t, however, stop herself from asking, “Did you take something from them?”

The Baron paused in front of a pillar. One of its flowers bathed him in a pulsing, rhythmic blue glow. 

“Do you know why it rains in Stormlands?” The light revealed itself to be an insect as it crawled out. “Why the water is poisonous as it is?”

Echo shook her head. It was a question scientists had been asking for ages.

“It is a curse,” he said, letting the insect crawl onto his finger. “There used to be life here, once. And I don’t mean the abominations thriving in the rapids. I mean actual life like what you see in this room.”

The insect took flight, rejoining several more lights up above. They reminded Echo of stars, each and every one a different a colour.

“But then an old war made itself known and the storm was unleashed. Everything died. At least, that’s what we originally thought.” 

Echo waited. She had the feeling he enjoyed dramatic pauses a little too much.

“We found a remnant of what the Stormlands used to be. We call it the Orchard. That’s where we discovered the golems, but they weren’t necessarily hostile at first.” The Baron made his way towards the stone steps descending from his throne. “They only attacked when we took a piece of the Orchard with us. Ever since then they’ve been spreading like wildfire, destroying my outposts and growing into something more than a simple nuisance.”

He stopped a few feet away from Echo.

“You, Captain, are going to help me make that problem go away.”

It seemed like a bad idea to ask, And if I don’t? The answer was obviously death or torture, so she went with something more positive. “Can I go home after that?”

The Baron actually laughed at that. Echo smiled thinly, not knowing how else to respond.

“Darnell, what do you think?”

“Permission to speak freely, your grace?”

“Permission granted.”

“I think you’re making a mistake. Letting them anywhere near the Orchard is a bad idea,” he said, taking special care to look at Echo as he said it. “We should just put them in a cell or kill them. I don’t see the point in keeping them around. We’re going to interrogate them eventually, might as well get it done and over with right away.”

The Baron nodded. “Is that all?”

Darnell looked like he wanted to say more. “Yes, your grace.”

“Good. The HCS Mace departs tomorrow at first light. Aksis, you and Captain Sinclair’s crew will accompany Darnell on this mission.”

Darnell sighed. “I don’t understand, your grace.” 

“Then let me help you understand, Darnell.” The Baron stepped right up to the man. “You brought them here. These men and women are your responsibility. This might have been Aksis’ idea but, as captain of one of Freestone’s flagships, it was ultimately your decision whether to listen to him or not.” He let a brief second pass. “Understood?”

Darnell gritted his teeth. Echo squeed on the inside.

“Yes, your grace.”

“Splendid.” The Baron pivoted to face Echo. “Let’s make a deal, why don’t we? If this mission is a success - and you come back alive - I will consider giving you and your crew your freedom. But if Aksis dies, I will kill you all.”

Echo made one of her thinking faces, then decided not to prod him on that last bit. “Can I get my ship back if I’m good?”

“Maybe,” he said. “Sound fair to you?”

Echo grinned. Good enough for her.

“Deal,” she said.

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There’s something peculiarly beautiful about the Orchard. Not in the sense of its physical appearance, no—Iris cannot see the narrow canyon nor the giant caverns within it, cannot observe the glowing fungi that have made their home amongst the rock crevices and high stone walls, cannot distinguish the jagged blown wall from the great expanse of caves beyond it. She does not require sight to know that the Orchard is worlds away from the death and ruins of the outside, and the group has only been standing at the mouth of the caves.

The air feels different, smells different here, quite unlike the harsh wastes of the Stormlands. They are far beyond the reach of the toxic raindrops down here, and already, Iris feels refreshed, cleansed anew.

The poison already flowing through her veins doesn’t really count.

“Are we to kill them?” She whispers quietly; whether it is directed to Ramsey standing beside her or merely to herself is not immediately made clear. It is not obvious, either, whether she means the Baron’s men or the golems mulling within the depths of the Orchard.

Despite her inability to observe whatever living thing could be moving through the caverns down below, Iris had been there during the confrontation with the Baron and his men, and the subsequent transaction that had occurred. The crew of the Casimir had been offered a deal, and their Captain had accepted. She has very little choice but to follow along with what is required of them, lest she give her true intent away this early on.

Iris needs to make her way into the heart of Freestone, and in order to do that, she’ll have to survive this mission, no matter the cost.

“I’ll need my equipment,” she tells Ramsey; she will be of little use to everyone involved without her possessions returned to her safe and sound, “to help.”

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He never left Hell's Gate for any reason other than battlefields and emergencies. Stepping into the Baron's throne room, Ramsey had felt immensely overwhelmed. As a man who's never really experienced much of the wonders of magic in Terrenus, he was easily fascinated by the plants and the moss and the insects each glowing a different color. He wanted to look at the flowers, maybe consider taking them home with him and adding to his collection of house-grown plants, but he was presently aware of the fact that they were brought here because of a very important reason.

They're still like dogs on a leash. Now that they have to actually work for the Baron, they have to, what, kill the golems?

"Are we to kill them?"

Iris asked him a question. It took too long to process because he was going to complain to himself. He looked at her face and he tensed up.

"What? No," he turned to look at the guards, "not them," he gestured, "the golems."

A beat passed and he found that he wasn't so sure about that. "Right?" He whispered, maybe to someone, but mostly to himself.

Glancing back at Iris, he remembered to keep a safe distance away from the woman. After she was handed over to Ramsey for a little check-up, he found out that Iris was a walking-talking pit of poison whose voluptuous body and pretty face was specifically designed to kill you from where you stand. He was standing right next to Iris, hence his discomfort.

Yeah, she's cute, but it's not cute when you know that she knows she wanted to kill someone already judging from her innocently asked question of when we're supposed to kill these guys. Ramsey was pretty innocent in this. Who would've thought he'd be included in a do or die mission with the rest of the Casimir and her hectic captain along with a hot carrier of death.

He tried to take his mind off it. Something he found himself doing all the time.

He moved a cigarette in his fingers. A cigarette, now that his helmet was off and he got to smell the scent of sweet elven magic pulsing at his feet, and, well, since these are technically plants and they were on the ceiling, on the walls, on the floor, everywhere in essence actually, Ramsey wasn't quite sure if he was allowed to smoke in here. That's bad, right? Smoking near plants is bad? Ramsey took one more look at them, the plants. Then he looked at the cigarette thought: fuck it. Who's gonna stop me? No one. A small flame lit up on the tip of his thumb. It sparked the embers to his smoky addiction and he breathed it in. He flicked his wrist and the flame poofed. Ramsey was lucky smoking couldn't actually kill him. Hell, he'd be dead by now if he were never able to physically throw up fire. 

Iris looked at him. He looked at her back.

“I’ll need my equipment,” she says, and he's immediately suspicious, “to help.”

Ramsey only raises a brow and stupidly smirk.

"Ha," he responded, a visible cloud of grey spilling from his lips, "I don't know what to tell you."

He really doesn't. What's she really planning to do with it?

"Call me paranoid, but you tried to reach for my tools when I had my back turned on you." Help? Is that some kind of bluff? "Sorry lady, but I don't trust you."

Also, you can probably kill my dog with a snuggle.

A puff of smoke. "Ask Echo."

 

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Echo stood at the head of a marble staircase, lit by the turquoise glow of an artificial sun. It was crystal, suspended above the seemingly limitless cavern, smooth and jagged and joined by a layer of complex vines. Below, a rainforest merged with the colossal walls of a labyrinthian structure. Tended to by animals. Monkeys and tigers. Feathered lizards and four-legged spiders. 

There were also the golems. Lumbering, patrolling like ponderous sentinels. 

Gardeners, of a sort.

Echo was glad they didn’t look up. 

“That’s eight hundred meters below sea level,” Klavier announced, looking at the datapad affixed to his forearm. The descent had taken them the better part of the hour, a treacherous walk through winding, pitch-black tunnels. They’d lost one of Darnell’s men to a long fall that left him screaming for too long. Echo tried not to let the sound of his dying distract her while she memorized the way forward and back. 

Carter narrowed his eyes. “Where do we go from here?”

Aksis stepped forward, pointing at a round stone tower. His voice warbled like the hiss of a dying chemical fire. “We believe that is where the golems come from.” 

Echo’s helmet deconstructed itself, collapsing back into her suit. She took a slow breath. The air still smelled of fresh rain. “You believe that’s where they come from?”

“Isn’t that what I just said?”

“I’m asking in case you might be wrong.”

“Then we will have learned something new.”

Aksis started down the stairs, metal feet clicking in a dull rhythm. Echo watched him go. She didn’t know whether his response frustrated her or not. 

“Ask Echo,” she heard Ramsay say, voice drifting lazily in the background. Drifting like the wisps of smoke trailing grey lines above his face.

Echo turned. “Ask what?”

Ramsay jabbed a thumb at Iris. “She wants her stuff back. Says she can help.”

“Tell her she’s full of shit.”

Ramsay didn’t even blink. “Is that an order?”

“Sure, why not.”

“The Captain says you’re full of shit.” 

“Thank you.” Echo took a step forward. “Now put out that cigarette before I stick it down your dick hole. You still have time before you start to sound like Carter.”

“How considerate of you,” Carter muttered in his whiskey-and-cigar voice. Echo flashed him a too-sweet smile before stopping a foot away from Iris. 

“What’s a blind girl supposed to do with a gun?”

Echo let the question hang in the air. Long enough for Iris to know that she knew. 

There were too many holes in her act.

“Sounds like an accident waiting to happen. Frankly, I think you’ll be worse than useless.” Echo gestured for Iris’ equipment. Klavier lifted the girl’s hand and wrapped her fingers around a hilt. “But feel free to prove me wrong. I’ve been surprised before.”

Echo shared a look with the rest of her crew. It was subtle but it spoke well enough. Iris would never be far from their eyes. Especially if she started to shoot straight. 

“Less talking, more walking,” Darnell suddenly hissed. Pointed barrels prodded them down the stairs. They led into a smooth-cut channel of the maze, home to a tangle of unfamiliar trees. A river ran all along its length, joined by occasional, too-straight waterfalls, sliding down hundred-metre-tall walls that were probably older than the Witch King himself. More than once they were forced to lay low, as there were other predators besides the golems stalking the woods. Strange as the creatures from Yh’mi. Hard to believe everything around her had once belonged to the surface. 

“So, what’s in the tower?” Echo asked, curious. It loomed less than a kilometer away, broad and imposingly massive amid a field of pale stone—bare apart from the golems rooted to the ground, statuesque in their stillness. Watching. Waiting. 

There was no other way around.

Aksis stopped them at the foot of a boulder larger than a house. He peered over the side quickly. Scouting ahead with telescopic eyes. Snapping hundreds of pictures in seconds. “We don’t know,” he crackled quietly.

Darnell checked his rifle one last time, as did the rest of his men. They’d brought several explosives for the tower, so those needed checking too. 

“Remember the plan,” he started, voice also kept to a whisper. “Get in, place the bombs, get out, go home.”

He swept an inquiring glance over his crew and the Casimir’s.

“Everyone ready?”

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It turns out to be a fulfilling request in the end, her query for her equipment, even when the journey there is a long, gruelling, and frustrating exchange of suspicious glances and conversations held with herself as the subject matter even though she is right there, and every word tinged with every bit of cynical skepticism they possess. But really, why had she thought it would be any different?

Not for the first time, Iris regrets ever sneaking her way onto that thrice-damned vessel. Her Mother would have appreciated the need for speed, perhaps, or even for a little test of her tenuous diplomatic skills, but clearly, these men are the most distrustful souls on the face of Gaia’s green earth; how on earth have they gotten whatever mercenary job comes their way? Perhaps this mission is more of a test of her patience, which hangs on a thin, fraying thread now. Her mouth aches from restraining her tongue behind the cage of her lock-clenched teeth. It’s ridiculous.

Nevertheless, she receives her equipment back, fingers quietly led to wrap around the hilt of her gun, which she slides back into the empty holster strapped to her thigh. Her other weapon returns to its place on her back, unassuming to all eyes present. It’s almost like slipping once more into her armor, ready for battle, and the feeling of relief settles into her bones like a long-missed friend.

They are forced to continue onward. Iris cannot see what is around them, but she can infer by the tinkling sound of water against stone—a river? A waterfall?—and the hushed instructions to lay low as they make their way through the strange woods. They come to a halt next to some sort of stone surface, she notes, leaning against the rock while the Captain and their captors converse in low tones.

“Remember the plan. Get in, place the bombs, get out, go home. Everyone ready?”

Iris does not respond verbally, but something in her rears its head: dangerous and primal. Oh, she’s ready. She’s always been ready.

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ramsey got a vivid imagination of Echo sticking his cigarette down the good ol' dickhole. Needless to say, he got pretty grossed out. He shot her a very concerned squint before spitting his cigarette away, wheezing out one last cloud of smoke from his lips. He grinned at the mention of Carter. "Pssh. Someone's cranky," he swung the rifle on his back into his hands, "crankier than usual." 

He shook something he took out of his jacketan inconspicuous-looking bullet—swishing with liquid inside. It glowed in a strange color as he loaded it into the chamber. At the sound of his gun cocking back, something groaned at him from the corner of his eye. Like a guttural animal running around the bushes. It came from his periphery, but Ramsey didn't want to look. He kept up with the group, clearly unsettled, obviously having never been in a zoo his entire life. He's, well, never actually seen anything like this his entire life. It reminded him how much he was missing out on in life.

They went down the stairs, almost curious to ask if Iris needed to hold his hand. As paranoid as he was, about Iris, or about whatever was lurking in the forest and all, his eyes eventually lingered on the river and wondered if there was anything in the watermaybe a big fish, and kept a subtle look of surprise when it led to a gigantic waterfall. Wow. Back to Iris. 

He was still keeping an eye on her. One of the many dozen eyes he keeps darting to; back and forth like juggling ten cameras of visual information. He was surprised that Echo actually trusted her with a gun, but, hey, better safe than sorry. Ramsey stared at her face, acknowledging the fact he cant see him staring at her, and failed to keep in an amused scoff. 

Everyone stops at the boulder. Ramsey takes this time to re-evaluate his equipment before strolling in. He decides to might as well wear the medical patch on his shoulder, since what they're dealing with aren't exactly soldiers. He brings his rifle to the side of the boulder and starts looking through the scope, scouting farther than Darnell. 

“Everyone ready?” 

"Wait." Ramsey starts digging his hands into his pockets. "Wait." 

Then he gropes for it, and mutters an OK. 

"Yeah, good to go." 

Edited by SweetCyanide

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When it came to bitching and moaning, Echo had a good track record of not doing it. Even at the worst of times, she liked to think of herself as a woman of caffeinated grit. Part of that was due to her upbringing, which involved an unhealthy mixture of tough love and social Darwinism. She also had a knack for taking life by the balls and twisting really hard when it tried to fuck her.

“Oh god, stay back, stay backHURK-

So when the golem skewered the man in front of her, tossing him aside like a ragdoll that made squishy noises as it landed, she didn’t give voice to the emotions crowding her thoughts, which would have roughly translated to, “Oh man, this blows.”

Instead, she levelled her rifle in a snap-motion.

Held the trigger all the way down.

Pop pop pop went the automatic fire.

Lethal fuck you’s were ejected by the dozen.

Bits of bone shattered like colourless confetti and the golem abruptly froze mid-swing. It teetered on its feet undecidedly before crumpling in a heap of wet stone and moss. Echo didn’t linger long. There were more coming at her straight ahead. She could clearly make out the tower’s entrance in the distance and taste the freedom the Baron had promised her crew.

Almost there, she thought determinedly, pushing up with Klavier at her side. The draconian blasted the nearest golem in the chest, and she felt the railgun’s discharge in her teeth.

“This blows,” he said idly, picking off a target with another well-placed shot. Echo covered him while he reloaded, then lobbed her last grenade because why not.

“I don’t know, I’m kind of having fun,” she replied. The detonation shook the ground and briefly lit up her helmet. “Though I’m starting to miss that one part where we don’t have to worry about dying.”

They slipped through the tower’s entrance, stopping to admire the monolith at its centre. It was a tree, they realized, fashioned from pulsating crystal and ancient sorcery. Attached to it were large amber sacs. Echo immediately thought of them as fruit. Skeletal figures laid inside of them, curled in fetal positions that appeared to squirm at the sudden intrusion.

“They grow here,” Aksis mused, darting a glance at the dead golems behind them.

The rest of the men had already begun to arm the bombs.

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It’s truly a shame that she’s blind. She would’ve wanted to see the explosion of the armed bombs as shockwaves shatter through the walls of the Orchard and the inhabitants within; that would have truly been a spectacular, fiery sight to behold. She can only make do with the noises that erupt from the destruction, and my, what a symphony they display when they all come together.

However, all good things must come to an end, abrupt and inadequate as they are, and the group soon find themselves returning to Freestone without further delay. Once again, Iris finds herself in chains, but it is no matter: she needs only bide her time, and with the way of living she has had before this very moment, the woman has more than enough patience to last her two lifetimes over.

They come to stand before the Baron once more, and just as promised when they had first made the deal, the Casimir is returned to its rightful Captain. Iris doesn’t quite feel the need to stick around any longer and waste any more time, despite the eventful jaunt she has shared with Echo and her crew, and so amidst the flurry of activity that comes after, she quietly slips her chains, disappearing into the hazy fog of Freestone’s caverns while no one is looking.

The woman sheds the persona she had adopted, taking on the facade of an unknown phantom once more. 

She has work to do, and there is no time to stand idly by.

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