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An Imploding Star
Topic Started: Thu Nov 30, 2017 8:10 pm (1,245 Views)
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She bloomed in the nighttime. The pale glow of the night-moon cast upon her skin as though illuminated from within. She stood still in the depths of the water, face turned upward, eyes closed. Long curtains of black hung down her back, the loose tresses a similar shade to that of the shadows. The wind played in its length, tossing strands lightly to brush against her shoulders. Her stillness was so steady that the water around her barely rippled, the inky depths settling around her waist soundlessly. The lake was large enough to often carry waves, and the nearby beach bore sand thanks to the thunderous crashing of water on rock over the centuries. But tonight, in the hushed whisper of the evening, it remained as still as its occupant.

The woman’s hands were submerged beneath the water’s surface, hanging loosely at her sides. The only sign of life her statue carried was the soft rise and fall of her chest. It was not a warm night. Her breath condensed in a light cloud as she exhaled through barely parted lips. The frosts had not hit the region yet. The shoreline was filled with heavily leafed reeds and lilies. Fragile petals of flowers had closed tightly for the night and warded off any threat of chill. In contrast, the woman welcomed it. Clad in a tight fitting tunic, she absorbed the icy cold of the water and relinquished her own body heat to its depths. And yet, as though somehow paralyzed, she did not move, not even to release a shiver.

Finally, after several more slow breaths, her lashes parted and her eyes opened to drink in the light of the night sky. Azure orbs flashed in the starlight, framed by long black lashes. The sight of the sky was pleasing and drew forth a gradual smile which danced upon the woman’s lips, bringing a different kind of warmth to the scene.

She was so used to remaining protected. She guarded every ounce of herself at all times. Here, alone in the lake water, she was able to slowly peel back the layers of her armor and be her raw and true self. She was not unhappy, though her heart bore a buried secret of loneliness. She would swear her independence, carry it with justifiable intensity, but she continued to wrestle with the notion that independence and loneliness need not be held hand in hand, and that if only she could trust someone in some kind of companionship she could feel more fulfilled. The idea was difficult and foreign. Trust was a difficult gift to bestow and carried with it such risk. A poor investment could be deadly.

Her smile turned to a wince thinking about it, and the glassy surface of the lake was shattered as she pulled forth a hand to rub the back of her neck. Pulling her gaze from the stars she looked out across the lake, letting out a slow sigh. With little hesitation she dove forward, allowing the water to swallow her entire form, sending icy zaps of chill through her body. She propelled herself forward a few feet before again resurfacing, regaining her footing on the lake-floor. The waterline now rested at chest level. The blast of cold pulled her head out of the potential thought spiral she had begun to tiptoe toward, and she again found herself settle into stillness. Her leg muscles had ceased to protest against the temperature and had settled into a state of comfortable numbness, a mirror to mental/ emotional state as of late. She had become one dimensional. She only knew anger and… non-anger. She buried all other emotions under the pretense of uselessness. In reality she was building a deeper and deeper hole, and an empty aching that once settled uncomfortably at the base of her stomach, now swallowed her entire chest and carried its own crushing gravity. There was a breaking point coming, and she could feel it, whereby, like some celestial black hole, she would start collapsing in on herself and implode.

When the surface of her lips began to change color and send faint tingles up into her cheeks, the woman deemed it time to exhume herself from the lake, knowing full well that as her core temperature rose again, she would be back into exhausting complications of her lived existence.
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A clap of wings beating against themselves sounded as loud as a blast from a horn along the shore, quickly giving away an almost invisible creature that swooped low before gliding onto a large overhanging branch in a gnarled oak. The fullness of the moon failed to penetrate the shadows of the forest to reveal the feathered things sitting in the open. Leaves shook and rattled the limbs on the tree as the avian creature took flight again. This time the oily wings glided across the white shore until the bird flew above the waters. Here the shape of it could be made as the moon struck it; a raven with radiantly glowing eyes. Around its neck hung jewelry of bone. Unnatural, but so were many of the things here. It spotted the pale figure against the black water and did what annoying thing any member of its species does; cawed. A quick way to ruin anyones time if they were trying to sneak around. Only once did the loud, deep call scream in the silence before the animal disappeared on the opposite shore. Anyone with a mind knows the bird led a silent omen in the night. A chill of undulating gooseflesh sent rippling up one's spine at the sound. Following after the bird came a painful silence. The lapping waters that softly caressed the shores lulled everything back to rest.

Save for a light stir in the branches where the raven had lifted.

The lithe figure that began to remove herself from the waters may notice something she probably had not before as she neared- a light mustard cloth sticking out of a tree branch mid-canopy. Granted, it doesn’t appear to be attached to anything. More like someone had thrown their garments a little too high and had been unable to jump or scale the tree to get it back out.

X’yros watched from his perch with a set of feline-looking eyes the glittered from the darkness of his skin. He melted in with the shadows with ease, and sat comfortably with his legs out and crossed while leaning back against the trunk of the tree. How he had accomplished the height of his perch was an entirely different story… but now he sat coolly with a fair view between the clumps of leaves camouflaging his body. A light smirk plastering his lips beneath his softened eyes as he watched the woman onto the shore. Sneaking around as a giant wasn’t his favorite thing to do, so taking his second more human form was his next option. Even if he hated it. The length of time he had spent up in this spot had been long enough that his tailbone ached, his legs stiff, and his neck felt like it could snap at any second. Simple discomforts he could press off. He had thought about making himself known to her earlier- before the layers came off- but, his social-awkwardness and curiosity had prevented him from moving. Now he felt like a great time to say something- he didn’t take into affect that a woman may not respond favorably to being spied on…

The tree limb wiggled with a bouncing movement, rustling the leaves and easily giving his position away as he painfully uncrossed his legs.
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The water was thick, making her limbs drag heavy through the depths. She moved slowly, a part of her dreading the return to shore and the general malaise that accompanied her life there. She had disarmed save for a small dagger strapped tightly against her calf. The weapon was miniscule, really an implement only for use in emergencies, but none the less, it carried an edge as sharp and deadly as the rest of her implements. Phedre did not allow her gear to weather, for she knew that at any moment, a bit of rust could be the difference between life and limb.

Water pushed off of her thighs as she moved ever closer to the shoreline. The motion left a gentle wake behind her, ripples falling away in every direction. She moved without concern for her sound, she had not stumbled across a traveler in some time and few were out at this hour. And perhaps that is why, when the stillness of the night was fractured by the jagged call of a crow, she froze.

The water sloshed around her has her numbed limbs stood fixed in pause. She glanced at the shoreline before her, and the trees at its side. A few leaves rustled but it was difficult to tell if it was the breeze or an animal causing the stir. The light of the moon caught a faint glint of steel on the shoreline, reminding the woman that she was mostly unarmed and her prized possessions were not only some distance away, but also unguarded. She stifled a curse. It was foolish to think she would have a moment of peace, safe and unguarded.

With naught else to do, for the longer that she spent in the water the more useless her legs would be, Phedre continued her long strides towards the shoreline. She held herself differently now. There was a strange but deadly beauty in her agile movements, as her form began traveling like that of a prowling beast. Her azure gaze cooled and grew calloused as the plates of her inner armor returned to guard her lonesome heart. She watched the tree with the trembling leaves and, as she set her first bare foot upon the sandy shoreline, caught a glimpse of dark yellow fabric. It hung loose from high in the tree, and rocked slightly in time with the tremble of the leaves. She was sure that there was nothing of that color in the trees when she had entered the water earlier… She squinted, bright blue irises shining through long lashes to better comprehend the nature of what she was seeing. There was something up there.

Both feet in the sand now, she faced the tree, eyes fixed to the fabric. Her belongings were beneath the great bows and racing to grab them could lead to her appearing more threatening than she would like. It is always best to be underestimated. Instead, eyes ever watching the strange mustard fabric, she began wringing out her tunic, each motion slow and deliberate. She cocked her head to one side, then the other, with hopes of somehow seeing what she could not see before. She had no success.

It was then that the once-sweet kiss of the breeze slipped across her dripping shoulders, curling its icy tendrils across her nape. The air was frigid, now that she was out of the water and in open air. She could not suppress the shudder her body gave out, shivering to create warmth by whatever means possible. She glanced down at her hands. They trembled slightly and were tinged an eerie purple/ blue… the downside of late-autumn swimming.

She had prepared for the chill. There was a fire set a few meters from the shoreline, needing only one great spark in order to burst into flame. With slightly trembling hands she wrung out her hair, long, wet locks twisting into a shadowy cord down her front. It was then that the branches of the tree shook in earnest, and the presence of another became truly apparent. Phedre let out a sigh. She had washed away a week of blood and bounties in the lake and did not want to have to clean more crimson from her skin today.

In a calculated risk, she turned her back to the tree and walked slowly toward the fire. Calling back over her shoulder she said, “if you are coming to kill me, please do get it over with. I am half in the grave from cold as it is. It shouldn’t be too cumbersome for you to finish the job.”

She continued to move lithely, her muscles rolling with each step, but in truth her limbs were still fighting to reawaken from the water’s numbing chill. She reached the fireside, where she had stored her flint, and retrieved it with bumbling hands. By this point her shivers became substantial and sabotaged her usual coordination. It took four or five strikes before a sufficient spark leapt from the stone and into the bed of tinder. Smoke curled lazily from its base as it smoldered and then, eventually, caught.
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The sound of water being pushed by gentle feet caused him to still as his eyes followed the movement of dark hair plastered against delicate skin. It was so quiet that if he focused, he could easily count the woman's heartbeats. The sound of the stronger beats had increased as the air came in contact with the wet skin. He didn't have to watch to know she paused, she heard him, he heard her. X’yros brought his leg up and threw his hand onto his knee while he waited for the tingling sensation to go away from being so stiff. The leaner figure came back into view while moving to a bundle of wood put together and as she did this he was beginning to go over in his head how to pull off an introduction before scaring the woman off. As much as he enjoyed a thorough chase, people never got very far no matter how much time he gave them…

Her lips cracked apart and what followed fit the armor that sat a distance off. The tone still had that feminine feel to it but also a sort of stern roughness of someone that had been weighed down with the things they've seen and been through. With a grumble he finished swinging his legs over the sturdy branch quite a distance up. He held tightly onto the bark and prevented himself from falling. With almost no effort at all the man slid from his seat and hopped onto another large branch below. When his feet hit the wood with a thud it rocked a murder of ravens from their slumber. The birds took to flight and cawed as they went in slight alarm, slight annoyance and partially causing the man to lose his footing. Once he rebalanced himself he crouched and gripped the branch he stood upon. The bark was rough as he leaned back and kicked his feet out, dropping his body below the branch until his weight pulled upon his arms. Swinging back, he used his legs to throw himself forwards with a grunt and he jumped an unnatural height to the sands below without breaking anything.

His body came down with a light thud upon his feet and a taller, dark figure was revealed from the clutches of the shadows. The outer strips of his garment along with a cape kept the man from fading into the darkness as the clothing was lighter colored than the off-shade of crimson beneath. Brushing off his chest he watched the person of interest crouching at the fire while striking stones until the element so familiar to him burst into life and greedily consumed the food it was given to grow. He stood there for a moment, taking in the woman's words before making his advance. As her back had been turned to him, the man had noticed the small blade attached to her leg, and quickly reminded himself that humans were becoming more and more unpredictable with the power they had. For normal victims, whatever blade they had usually ended up being worthless. He gave her a wide girth just for safe measures until his body entered the light the fire gave off. Twin amber eyes danced almost as brightly as the flames while examining the woman's face before they flickered to the fire. Across the pit she had created, he crouched onto his heels and held his hands out to the warmth. The fire illuminated his features quite well. His coal black hair was a bit unique, as it almost looked like it had been styled with a gentle dusting of gold on the ends of hair closest to his forehead. He had a scruff of facial hair that had collected at his jawline before creating a partial goatee. His expression relaxed to a sly smile when a deep voice laced in a tribal accent finally decided to pipe up in return.

“Not the warmest night for a swim, surprised you can still move.”

He had decided to brush off her comment she had made earlier, it was an invitation to try and cause harm to her, as he had picked up, it usually meant their skills in self-defense were excellent.
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The first catch of flame brought forth a gentle puff of heat, a thing that was so welcome she could not help but release a pleasant sigh. It was not seconds later that the dry kindling caught and broke into a symphony of satisfying snaps and crackles. Flames danced across the wood, licking up into the night air, plumes of warmth rolling across her shivering flesh. She held her hands out over the fire, drawing the heat as deep into her body as possible.

The stranger in the tree had disembarked, and she had heard him land behind her with a sure-footed thud. It was apparent, if only from the faint sound of his movements, that he was agile, but the woman did not move from her fire, nor turn to observe him. Slowly, moving with the muscled frame of a predator, the stranger came to stand before the fire-light, his substantial height folding upon itself as he moved to crouch on his heels. The woman dared to draw her gaze from the flames, her chilled blue irises assessing and calculating the being before her.

His eyes seemed to shine, flashing an amber that matched the bright flame before him. He had a strong jaw, as if chiseled from stone, which was dusted with a dark shadow of scruffy facial hair. His locks were dark, raven black in some parts, much like her own. Strands shone in odd places, glimmering as though dusted in gold. The shine caught her eye, and she tilted her head, observing it with curiosity. But his golden frosted tresses only held her attention for a mere moment before she was again drawn to his luminous gaze. She had felt that, somewhere before, she had looked into similar eyes, though the man before her was a stranger to her. The feeling left an odd nagging tug at the back of her brain.

His lips parted to speak, finally pulling her gaze from his pools of amber down to his mouth, which was drawn into a smile. He held himself in a quiet posture. His speech was neither brash nor threatening. She found tension from coiled muscles melt away as his words carried across the fire. Perhaps there would not be a quarrel after all.

Her body still shuddered from the cold, there would be no sense in denying the frigid temperatures and its impact on her form. She imagined her lips appeared quite blue, and would remain so until the fire helped dry her some. She had intended on stripping, letting her tunic dry and donning dry clothing, but that would have to wait for now. “Perhaps,” she spoke softly, her sapphire gaze watching him with amusement, “I lingered a moment too long in the water. But the chill of the night is a just trade for having the water to oneself.”

She rubbed her hands together, holding them as close as tolerable to the flames. Her body let out a deep shudder as it drank in the warmth, and she fought to suppress the chattering her teeth were threatening to make. She shifted from one foot to another, finally starting to regain feeling in her smallest toes. She grinned again across the flames, her lips feminine and full despite their chilled pigment. “What brings you to the water’s edge?” She paused insinuating an ask for his name.

The woman moved to wring out her hair again, twisting it in a long cord in front of her. Flecks of water sprayed the fire leading it to hiss in anger. Having regained full feeling her in her limbs, she too eased herself down to the ground, sitting back on her heels. Her posture matched his, though she leaned so close to the fire that she was nearly aflame herself. The heat burned at her surface, though inwardly she continued to combat the freeze. Perhaps it was more than just the physical cold that she fought, as for the first time in ages, the lonely monster in her heart roared and she dared risk a thought to feed it.
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Moments of contact held between his gaze and her own left him intrigued by this woman’s amount of self-control. Here the cold ripped at her entire soul like a lion and yet she, like a wounded grazer, concealed the pain and instead moved to show his stranger self that she was strong. An act it may be; she was a brilliant actress. As the smaller effeminate frame lowered itself to match his own pose she began to wring the moisture from her hair, so close to the fire that it sizzled in rebellion to the foreign dampness. The shift in the scent of flame brought him the slight tingle of burning hair as perhaps a wisp or two got just a little too close. It was easy to see the faded blue tones in her skin which had caused him to react in whatever gesture of kindness he could muster. Darker fingers moved to his shoulders to undo the straps beneath his first garment; releasing the faded yellow pads over his shoulders which in turn shifted the partial tunic resting on his front. The sun-colored garment slouched to the right of his body, and when he pulled it off, the longer cape came as well. It was all one piece. Now he was left with a shorter-sleeved crimson shirt.

The man held this article of clothing as her eyes cast back to him. Her voice smoothed over a fair question, though his smile had slightly faded, he still made a reply in a calm- steady tone.

“My friends told me a man was at the lake.” He shrugged while clutching the garment, “that I could acquire an easy meal and continue on my way but, they seemed to be wrong.” He leaned in a bit with his voice a little quieter and a larger smile spreading over his lips, “because I don’t think you’re a man, and I don’t think you have food with you.” He chuckled before leaning back.

With little effort and a twitch of his wrist, the cape and such was tossed along the side of the fire to land within reaching distance of her. The man didn’t seem too bothered by the cold. But now that a layer had been removed, his scars became much more noticeable. He eased himself to his side, propping himself up with an elbow and tossing his other hand onto his bent knee. Something shimmered around a shawl wrapped across the collar of his shirt. Small diamonds like little specks sparkling as they caught the light from his movement. Even his garments were quite fine, this left any reasonable thinker to assume he had quite a bit of wealth. More so if a glimpse of a golden choker hidden beneath the shawl. But his scars left him questionable. Two longer, pale dragged over the right of his face. One dashed across his nose, and a light clip upon his jaw. More parallel lines scattered over his arms, and one much longer scar along the side of his neck. It looked like the initial injury had been a blade that stopped just before cutting his vitals. All a clue of a born warrior.

And as he had judged from the company he shared. The harder muscles over her biceps and the strength of the features in her face wasn’t from spending her days sweeping some lads floors. She hadn’t gained her articles of gear scattered a distance off by trading goods.

“I think I need new friends.”

The humor in his tone carried across the flames to her.

“Anywho, my name is Jurdanian Tort. But enough about me, what about you, Miss? I’m sure you have a title or two.”

His subtle lies were sweetly natural from so many thousands of times they have been repeated. Twisting words and fabricating lies he discovered had been one of his many talents as a human… but they were always mingled with some truth. His focus and attention was entirely locked upon her reflective eyes, not twisting the gaze away to trace her skin.
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She watched the man slowly, and deliberately, unclasp his attire, the fabric tumbling into his grasp in fluid undress. She wrinkled her nose slightly, confused by the action. Even for a dry man, the weather was frigid enough to warrant clothing. Was he about to shape shift? She fought back an inner lurch in her gut and swallowed hard... was he a mage?

Shaking her head free of the disturbing thought, she opted to continue to monitor his movements, learning though observation rather than misaligned assumption. The clothing was rich, both in color and cost, and carried upon it very precise and delicate stitching. It had been years since she had worn a garment as fair, and wondered again how a man of his stature had found himself up a tree, at night, on the lakeshore. With the layer of fabric removed, the fire illuminated scars that contrasted his wealthy presentation. She stilled a moment, mesmerized by the glint of them against his dark flesh. They were wild and many, his scars, each one with a tale attached. What stories would he have, this strange man, she wondered, seeing him in a curious new light.

His voice pulled her back to the present, and again into the confusion regarding his undressing. He spoke of his coming here, of a man in the lake. She half-smiled, she was often confused for the opposite gender from afar. Her frame was sturdy and muscled, though in near proximity her feminine curves were ample and fair. She took no offense to the mistake, for she would live in nothing but offense all her days if such bothered her so. He continued his explanation, his voice soft and low. It drew her to lean closer to the flames, turning her head ever so slightly to angle her ear closer. The way he spoke of a meal... she chewed her bottom lip... something was not right about it. It carried a layer of passive threat, not overt or aggressive... more as though he stated a fact. She pocketed the notion for later, pausing a moment to see that, as he continued to speak, his teeth were not filed to points, nor held chunks of human viscera betwixt them.

“Correct in your assumption,” she said, returning his low and gentle voice with her own, “last I checked, I left that water a woman.” She glanced down at her chest with a wry smile and laughed, “yes. I do believe that remains unchanged. Or else,” her smile grew wider still, “I would be a very unhappy man.” She motioned a shivering hand toward the base of the tree where her gear lay, betraying her continued chill. “I do not carry with me a full meal, but there is some dried fruit in my pack if you wish a snack.”

It was then that the stranger gingerly tossed his attire toward her, careful to avoid having it land in the nearby flames. She watched it collapse in the dirt in a gentle thud, then moved her eyes from the fabric to the man, and back again, several times. She had little idea what his intention was at first, confused by the gesture of kindness. She had been an independent for so long she was not used to the chivalry of others. After a long, slow blink, she awkwardly pieced together his intention. He shared with her his clothing so that she would be warm.

No, no, no, she thought to herself, her instinctual walls returning for but a moment. She did not need his kindness, she did not need to be in his debt. Instead of donning the offered garb, she moved to stand, doing so with such haste that her hair swung back behind her like slick shadow. She paced toward her gear with such intent that her bare feet noticed not the rocks and pebbles it crossed over. Lifting her pack she freed a long black cloak and a matching fitted tunic. She was an independent. Ornate fabric fashioned for those with coin... that did not feel like home on her skin. She had her own, travel worn threads to keep her warm.

She moved behind the great tree and stripped off her wet tunic, which fell with slap on the grass. Her skin was icy, an awful blue tinge that was adorned with goose flesh. Here, away from the view of the stranger, she allowed herself to shiver, her body shuddering against itself to generate friction-heat. She rubbed her bare arms a moment and caught chattering teeth with pale lips, before pulling on her dry, black tunic and thick traveling cloak. She sighed as she wrapped its lengths around her torso, trapping whatever meager heat she produced against her body. She took a moment to breathe, then stepped back out from her shelter, walking slowly back to the fireside.

The man hadn’t moved. He remained in his comfortably reclined position, alluring amber gaze watching her as she returned. He was poised and relaxed, something she feigned poorly as she nudged the pool of his garments along the ground back to his side. “I thank you Jurdanian,” she said, her voice sounding much more steady than her gaze, “but yellow is simply not my color.”

The joke alleviated some of the awkwardness, she hoped, but the exchange had her so flustered that she missed picking up on a fallacy that she usually would have uncovered. He was not being honest about who he was, but she remained oblivious to the fact. But what was a name except something to call someone... “I am called Phedre,” she returned to her seat across the fire from the man as she spoke. Lowering herself to the ground she pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her cloak closely around her. She rested her chin atop her knees and stared across the dancing flames and back into the amber gaze before her. “And now you know my name, my gender, and my favorite color.” She smiled and held up a piece of her black cloak, which covered her black tunic. She was a shadow at the fireside, a circle of darkness with two dancing sapphire eyes.
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Eyes graced by such a feminine presence followed the movement of the woman’s own as she humorously beckoned notice of her bosom. She was at least correct in that statement. The man shared her laugh that easily carried above the sound of crackling sticks in the flames as he found this awkward point amusing.

“I promise I won’t be making that mistake again..” He grinned cooly.

His eyes flickered like a piece of flame disconnecting with the rest of the fire as he followed her gesture with his turning eyes. Beneath the tree rested her items, things he’d noticed earlier. With a careful glide his vision turned back to her softer-lit face as she spoke, inwardly chuckling to himself at her openness to share what little she had. It was only fitting that he’d respond by offering the clothes on his back. Not that he minded being without another garment.

“I appreciate your offer, but I will not take what little you have… Finding a warm meal out of the game in this area is enough, which I can find… If you’d like.”

The meal invitation was coupled with his cape he tossed to her, and from there he leaned down upon his side while observing her reaction in silence. It was thick and of fine quality, warmed by his own body; two very friendly invitations he just extended to this strange woman. The sands felt cool against his skin but again the surrounding environment left no chill of goosebumps to race up his arms and lift his hairs. His expression was just as warm as his offer, but it didn’t seem to last too long…

Like some sort of natural storm she jumped to her feet after eyeing his clothing like any moment it might jump and strike her. The sand spit from her twirling around to quickly trace her footing back to the tree she had motioned to earlier. He simply stared after her with an annoyed expression before he allowed a struggling sigh to slide out of his mouth. The woman was creating too much noise with her own clothing for anything he did to be heard. So there went his offering of peace. He wondered why she was so hesitant to accept it- but it spoke volumes about her character. Just like the stubborn viking-like people of the north. Perhaps that was where this hardened woman came from.

His actual expression

When he listened to the last bit of her clothing pulled together, his expression from before had returned- but a bit more blank. A soul-piercing gaze that lacked expression and meaning in his eyes. His mouth dared twitch upwards at her return, but other than his half-hearted smile, not a muscle in his frame moved. When she began to toss another amusing remark about his clothing he chuckled, though inside he took it a bit of an insult. With a sigh he shook his head and snapped his fingers together that had been resting upon his knee. His humorous eyes returned with a more sincere smile back up at her. As he began to sit up, something exploded from behind her. It was there only for an instant before it disappeared again without making any sort of noise and the garment besides her had vanished as she spoke.

“Phedre… a unique name I can come to appreciate.”

The man pushed himself up from laying across his side with a light amount of force, the muscles rolling beneath his skin. It was just enough of a shove so he could sit cross-legged in a fluid motion. His maintained contact with her eyes, though his brow narrowed and his voice grew in a bit more of a serious tone while he cupped his hands around his chin and rested his elbows on his knees.

“But as I mentioned the whole meal thing earlier- I did come here for that…”

A smile returned, softer around the edges.

“Would you mind sharing a meal with me tonight?”

He stirred again and this time he nodded towards the wooded area surrounding the shores.

“The small game here is great and easy enough to catch-”

Radiant amber eyes fixated themselves back upon her and he added on in a heavily amused tone.

“And seeing as you rejected my first act of kindness- It would be pleasing to me to at least do this one thing, as I had intended earlier anyways... In return of a free meal, you can repay me with your good company, and an exchange of stories.”

His accent applied heavily to the last of his sentence, his teasing was bluntly obvious. But there was a hint of seriousness to it. For him, good company was hard to keep.

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The man was coy. His words teased playfully, but waxed flirtatiously. This was overt enough to be discerned by the woman, whose expertise with such business could be counted on one fingernail. It was not an art form that she had cultivated. When bounties of the lecherous persuasion were being hunted, it did not take flirtation for Phedre to beguile them, oft her form alone was enough to lure them to the shadows where they would meet their unraveling. Flirtation was a subtle art, and Phedre’s subtleties were practiced in much different ways.

Nonetheless, she observed the flirtation with an outward curiosity and an inward confusion. The man was not unkind, pushy, disrespectful, in fact he acted in such propriety that it only confused her more. The men she oft surrounded herself with did not restrain their desires in front of the women they found attractive. Their pursuit of romance frequently resulted in fist fights outside of the tavern doors... and sometimes within them, if the mead was particularly strong and the woman particularly beautiful. But this man, the one with the dancing amber eyes, he was a different sort. Fancy clothing, polite exchanges... the hint of danger. He was a delightful curiosity, and she could not yet pull herself away from him.

“I apologize,” she said softly, drawing her gaze from his to look down at the sand at her feet, “I did not mean to offend. I only retrieved my own wares so that you would not meet the same cold air as I.” She unfolded herself and stood once more, reaching out over the flames. Had she just apologized? It happened with such infrequency that it caught her off guard. She had done it without thinking.

Blue eyes slid back to his visage, calculating how to best respond to his request. She chewed her bottom lip a moment, her brow furrowing. “I can easily grab us game,” she said slowly, motioning with her head towards the base of the nearby tree. Against the trunk leaned her bow, her quiver of arrows rested neatly beside it. “There are nesting quail not five hundred paces from here. I watched them settle as I arrived.”

She offered the hunt without attaching assumption, for fear that she would offend the man once again. Had he wanted to hunt? Was that part of some chivalrous act as well? Would he be offended if she retrieved her bow and obtained their meal? Or perhaps more so if they hunted together and she bagged their quarry first? She rubbed the back of her neck, again chewing at her lip. Why was she so concerned with not offending this stranger to begin with?

She asked the question inwardly and a dull aching in her heart reminded her that she was desperate for a companion for the eve, and an exchange of stories could prove to be extremely entertaining. Her eyes traced the lengths of scars that adorned his face. There was a particularly gruesome looking one on his neck. As she awaited his reply, she ran slender fingers through her raven black locks. After combing out any snarls, she began to braid it, a single thick cord wrapping around her neck to rest over her shoulder and down her front. She finished the plait with deft hands, securing a short leather thong to the base of the braid and letting it fall from her grip. She pulled the hood of her cloak up over her head, the shadows cast by the dancing flames morphing across her features. She had finally begun to warm. Her lips, slightly swollen from her mindless gnawing, had returned to their rosy pallor, and the pale blue that bit at her cheeks had given way to the warm kiss of life. She no longer shivered, and indeed, all feeling had returned, even to the very tips of her fingers. It was strange then, with the cold numbness of the lake gone, that she did not find herself donning the same emotional iciness that she had sought freedom from in the water’s chill.
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The apology that drifted across like a cool kiss of water on a scorching day was taken in unexpectedly, and played off as if he hadn’t noticed besides a slight softening to the ridges of his eyes. He was quite fond of this woman; her innocence sounded of a child. That was one thing he’s come to enjoy about being around so many of her kind, no matter how rough and dark their sinful nature, everyone seemed to have that innocence in one way or another. He still nodded in acknowledgement and held her gaze, wondering what had forced those words from her mouth. His reply was nonchalant but his words spoke of a truthful joke.

“Ah no matter, I could run around completely naked in this and still be as warm as I am.”

His smile lit up like the sparks from her flint earlier that had evolved to flames. Now his interest was her reply to his question earlier. She was taking her time on this. Weighing out her options, probably if he could be trusted or not, but she also seemed absolutely confused. It was delightful to watch. In the meantime he had reached behind him where the rest of his outfit had laid and he began to carefully strap it back onto his figure. When she finally spoke about hunting grouse herself for the pair, he shrugged his shoulders and smiled in reply.

“You could do that if you wish- I can retrieve a hare or two in the meantime, and with all that combined, surely it will be another day before you can say you’re hungry again.”

His deeper voice released a laugh and he found his way back to her lighter eyes reflecting the icy waters near them. The color bothered him enough that he couldn’t help but find himself enjoying their stare back in return, wishing for the owners of such eyes to be someone else. Leaning back, he noticed Phedre was beginning to look much more human now. Her zombie-blue skin returned pink with flushes of red. Soft and delicate hidden clad in a black outer shell.
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He had offered to hunt as well, though she saw no weaponry on him. Perhaps it was tucked neatly beneath his folds of rich fabric? She nodded in response to his suggestion. If they separated she would not have to worry about the impact of her behavior on him. She took quick strides toward her gear, her cloak swirling behind her as she moved. It swam in the shadows as though at home in the darkness, as did the woman, her form barely visible once away from the light of the fire.

With a boost of her leg, her toe caught the limb of her bow, kicking it up into her grasp. She let out a satisfied smile, feeling at home with her weaponry in hand. She knelt to retrieve her arrows, swinging the quiver over her left shoulder. She drew back her bow in several short pulls, warming it for a quick round of work.

She did not spare a glance at the man before she set off toward the bush line to the east of the fire. The moonlight barely illuminated the tips of the tall grass at the wood edge. She debated her attack. She carried a short bow, one imbued with an icy northern rune. She usually strayed from potentially magicked weaponry, but this was a gift from a friend, and had exceptional accuracy. Despite still being a distance away, she could have easily drawn and struck successfully, but wanting to be sure of her quarry’s location, she eased herself slowly forward, her movements cleverly disguised in the hush of the breeze as it flowed through the tall grass.

It did not take long for her to hear a gentle reshuffling of feathers and a soft coo. It came some forty feet from the woman, whose ears pricked, keen on the sound. In a fluid motion she nocked the arrow, drawing the string back to her chin and pausing. She exhaled and loosed the bolt, which connected with its target with a dull thud. Bleary quail, awoken from a deep sleep began to scream, sounding the alarm to their flock. By the time they took to the sky, bursting from the grass in panicked waves, Phedre had another arrow nocked and drawn. She loosed, hitting another as it only just broke free of the shelter of the grass. It plummeted to the earth like a stone. One more arrow nocked on her bow as she drew upward, following another bird as it flew frantically for the trees. It had nearly found safety in the tree canopy when she loosed her final arrow. It connected with such force that it pushed the fowl into the tree line, disappearing from view.

Satisfied with her find, she slid her bow over her shoulder and approached the corpse of her first target. Her arrow pierced its breast and lodged itself deeply into the ground. The fletching was nearly touching the bird. She had drawn back too far. With a forceful tug she drew the arrow from the ground and tucked the quail beneath her arm. She retrieved the second with ease; the arrow pierced it through the neck. Again tucking it beneath her arm, she moved toward the tree line to seek her final target. Three quail would be enough to last her days on her own, but she knew not how much the man ate, nor how much he hungered.

She approached the wooded area with caution, her ears perked for predatory sounds. It was eerily quiet, which was somewhat disturbing. She dismissed her paranoid thinking and continued her hunt, her eyes straining in the darkness for her quarry. The trees hid what little light was cast by the moon, leaving the wood in inky blackness. If it was not for a final dying flutter of the quail’s wings, she perhaps would not have found it, nor retrieved her arrow. Glancing upward she saw the two buried into the trunk of a great oak, 12 feet from the ground.

Dropping the two birds that she had tucked beneath her arm, she leapt upward, clutching a low limb on the tree. She drew herself upward with ease, and pushed up from the branch to reach the arrow. With a grunt she drew it from the trunk, the force causing several feathers to tear from the bird and float downward. She bounded down from the tree and landed solidly on two feet, her knees bouncing to absorb the impact. Scooping to retrieve all three quail, she set off back to the fireside.

The entire ordeal had unfolded in less than ten minutes. Despite the admirable efficiency, she carried no sense of pride nor arrogance. It was simply the job to be done, and she did so to the best of her abilities, as she did everything in life. Upon reaching the fire she dropped the birds on the ground, easing herself down beside them. She took the first in her grasp and began the tedious task of plucking them, pulling handfuls of feathers free at a time. Half way through the first bird she glanced upward, looking across the fire to see how her company was fairing. She wanted to watch him, assess how he moved, how he hunted. Perhaps, if he were another, she would be concerned for him, wanting to stick close in case something lurked nefariously in the darkness. But for some reason, the man had an air that he could handle himself, and she trusted it without question.
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Still unstirring the sands beneath him with movement, the man watched the woman make her retreat to the remainder of her belongings. Only for the darkness to swallow her whole outside the safety of the flames that had ringed around them. Once she was out of sight, X’yros stood. He brushed the sands from his cloak and tilted his jaw to the star clustered sky. A sigh created a smoldering amount of steam that clouded out the twinkling lights. The darker man turned in the opposite direction that Phedre had vanished to. One glance was cast over his shoulder before he too succumbed to the darkness. A wind stirred his garments as he walked quietly into the shadows that awaited with beady red eyes.

Vision adjusting, Jurdan could see every detail as fine as he could in the light of day, which would make this too easy for him. He lifted his hand and something stirred the foliage near him with a gust of silent wind. Bright blue eyes fixated themselves into his as a shadow weighed down his lifted arm. An alarm call echoed throughout the woods, tearing the animal’s gaze from his own. With a light shove upwards he sent the bird off. Those red eyes that had been watching earlier disappeared as well.

The taller man turned on his heels to a nearby tree and leaned back easily against the bark, piercing the night with his unnerving eyes in the sound of wind traveling through a snapping band followed by footsteps. He couldn’t see the woman, but he could hear her success. Tearing his gaze away he began to nod his head and tap his foot as he instead fixed his gaze directly ahead of him, lost in thought. It took as quick as he expected it would. A few lighter noises of fluttering feathers and repeated thuds by his feet. A deep hum purred out of his vocals while he held his palm out, ordering a stop. The thumping ceased next to him. But he still stood there and hummed. Another handful of minutes and he decided it was long enough. He leaned down and grabbed something soft, easily standing with a fair bargain with the birds.

He returned to the firepit smoothly continuing to hum with not a spec of blood, fur, tears; he was as pristine as he had been while entering the woods. The fire illuminated him and spooked that shadows off that once trailed him. Lighter footsteps carried him past where he had sat earlier and his hands released their hold upon three pairs of ears besides a feathered bird that came to a quick fate. The hares dropped into the sand limply with their heads rolling lifelessly upon their bodies. X’yros crouched besides them on the empty side of their kill pile, and lifted the first hare.

“Nice catch.” He split the humming and chimed in the words while focusing on his task at hand.

Grabbing the furred animal by the hind legs, he pushed his thumb at the back of its hips and pushed lightly, his thumbnail sinking into the skin as the very tip had sharpened into a talon, but the fur hid this. His slow work was turned into quick movement as he ripped the animal up with his thumb, splitting the skin with a straight line. He grabbed its hind legs again and began to stretch the skin until it teared, then shoved its legs through. Once the hind end was popped out, made possible by tugging the connected skin from the muscle, switched to grabbing both hinds in one hand, and took the rest of the skin off up to the head as if he was simply taking a jacket off the dead animal. Up to the neck however he had to pop the head off with it as well. Then when it was bare, he punctured a hole into its stomach behind the ribs and gutted it out with his hands. Somehow he was so expertise and practiced at this careful work that nothing touched his fond clothes. This process he’d repeat with the other two hares, happily diving into conversation in the meantime.

His eyes flickered up into her icy depths with a light smile spreading over his features.

“So, Phedre, where did you learn your marksmanship?”
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The woman paused, putting down the first plucked quail, a small pile of feathers forming beside her. Tossing a nearby log into the fire she watched the impact kick up bright sparks, the embers shining like dazzling stars against a black sky. The flames licked its new fuel in hungry laps, charring its outer bark with immediacy. A content smile played on her lips, showing flashes of white teeth usually hidden behind stern looks. She reached forward and had begun her rampant plucking once more, when three rather plump looking rabbits were dropped to the sand across the fire.

She stifled a startle, truly she did not expect him back so quickly, a hare was a more difficult game than a fat pigeon, but there he was, three in hand, and not a speck of blood or viscera on him. She looked him over with evaluating eyes, trying to make sense of what she saw. But still there was no sign of a weapon, it was as though he had simply reached down, plucked them up, and snapped their necks with his bare hands. Taking a rough inhale, she sniffed the breeze trying to tell if it offered some clue as to his methods. But there was only the faint char of the fire on the wind, and nothing more.

She replied to his compliment with an incline of her head, “you as well.” She continued to rip at the second bird absent mindedly, “it is almost as though you simply requested a meal and nature made haste with your bidding.” She did not try to hide her curiosity, with a fleeting hope that he may do some explaining.

It was then that she was truly stunned, squinting her eyes in an attempt to see clearer across the fireside. The man had retrieved the first hare and was stripping it of its skin with his bare hands. She shook her head a moment before looking down at her own slender fingers and well worn nails. There was not a hope that she could pierce an animal’s hide with her bare hands. She cursed herself for not checking his nails when she previously assessed his teeth for fangs. Perhaps he was some sort of shifter? She could conjure little else in explanation. The unknown made her increasingly uneasy. She was not only sharing a fire, but also a meal with a creature of whom she knew only a name...

The hare was skinned before she could complete her own work, and he floated her a question soon afterward. “I learned from many along the way,” she offered a vague answer, unsure of the stranger’s motives once more, “and still learn more. There is always room for improvement.” She offered little information but added a question of her own before finally completing plucking the last quail. “And you? How is it that you hunt without blood or sweat?” Are you a mage, she wanted to add, but she swallowed the query and returned her gaze to the quail.

In a fluid motion she drew forth her short knife, the one previously strapped to her calf. She flicked it absentmindedly through her fingers, the sharp steel sliding between her delicate grip without slicing flesh. She assessed her prey, the quail’s naked body laying bent in her lap. She did not enjoy the gutting process. She could carve up a man six different ways, holding all essential organs in her grasp and not bat a lash, but burying herself in the body of a beast was somehow much more personal. She opted against gutting it, many people eat the bird’s innards anyway, and they would be easier to roast whole.

With her task complete and a sudden hesitation to begin cooking, she cast aside the quail and leaned back on her elbows. Propping herself up so that she could still face her companion, she watched him with curious blue eyes, their brightness in stark contrast to the thick black lashes that framed them. A strand of her hair had pulled from its braid and laid down the side of her cheek, outlining crisp but feminine bone structure. She would eat with the man, she had decided, but was unsure of what to do thereafter. She knew she was tired, the heavy weight had begun to creep into her bones and it took all of her effort not to release a wide-mouthed yawn. Sleeping when she was alone was not always restful. It was as though her unconscious mind knew that it needed to remain alert, and so she was never so deeply resting that she dreamed. She was overdue for a solid night of sleep, a real ten or twelve hour hibernation, but it would have to wait another night, it would seem. She could not trust herself to sleep at all around such a strange man... or perhaps any stranger for that matter. She leaned onto one elbow, tucking the stray hair behind her ear with her other hand. She rubbed her eye in passing before settling back to her previous posture. Again she watched the amber eyes across the fire, so sure that she knew them from somewhere before. But a man of his wealth, or wealthy attire, she would have remembered, to be sure. She let a slow exhale push through her lips, her brain swimming with unanswered questions.
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Fixated eyes closely watching the woman and listening to her introduction to any hint of what she really did for a living kept him interested, but he was left unsatisfied with the small bit of information she gave. He put down his last hair with a sort of disappointed look over his expression. With a single huff the man continued shredding the last hare to shreds as she whipped out a slew of questions across the dancing flames at him. A light chuckle escaped the edges of his mouth as his eyes had focused back onto the kill. He held his palms up defensively as he finished the hare. Now he moved to jab stronger sticks through the gutted bodies and held two alongside the fire, not quite in the flames, just enough heat to begin cooking them thoroughly.

Pressing his legs a little out into the sands he rested his elbows upon his knees while comfortably keeping contact with Phedre. She was interesting. But he wanted to know more. There was so much more behind what she was saying, but it was fair that she most likely didn’t want to spill everyone to a stranger. With a sigh, he replied to her question.

“Yes I suppose it certainly seems that way. But my friends, dear Phedre, are excellent at locating things.”

He began to tap his foot into the sand with a tune bouncing around in his head again.

“I often do the hunting, so it’s fitting that they have a turn.”

It was still uncertain what- or where- these friends were. He shifted a bit and tipped his head to her weapon and pryed for more questions. He’d respond partially if she did, his response was already not the most satisfying answer but it did do exactly what it was supposed to. He answered her question with truth, for once.

“So- learned your trade along the way? What does that make you; a warrior? A bountyhunter? A scavenger looking for work? “

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He spoke again of his “friends,” being distinctly vague and mysterious. “These friends of yours,” she said with a grin, “were not so good about locating a man in a lake.” She laughed briefly, easing up from her reclined position. She watched him across the flames, he held out the skewered rabbits with steady hands. She continued to neglect her cooking duties, instead lowering her elbows to her knees and resting her chin in her hands. Her braid slid over her shoulder and down her front, slithering like a black snake across her cloak.

She fiddled with the ends of her braid, brushing the tips of her hair with slender fingers. Her eyes pulled from the man and focused on the strands, fingers twirling it absentmindedly as she pondered her answer to his biographic question. She chewed her lip a moment, it had become a bad habit of hers, and answered with a soft but steady voice. “I oft pursue bounties,” she murmured, eyes still cast downward, “it’s easy coin on most days.” Her hands left her hair and returned to the short blade that was previously dancing betwixt her fingers. “It is an employ that allows a fair use of my skills, prevents them from rusting.”

She drew her gaze up from her lap to catch the eyes of her companion. “There will always be someone better than you, stronger, more agile,” she knew not why she offered her thoughts so freely, they simply poured out of her as though a trapped vapor had finally been uncorked. “You are doomed to rot in the ground while still in the blooms of youth if you do not evolve. I only endeavor to live as long as I choose, be as strong as I may, as wise as I am able, and swift as my limbs allow.”

She slid the blade back into its sheath on her calf and continued her speech, eye shifting into the flames before her, blurring as they looked inward to past events rather than outward at the world before her. “I wake early to train, and sleep late to track. I study accomplished knights and unknown soldiers to draw forth knowledge from an experience that I have not lived. I fight to live a life on my terms, with my hands firmly on the reins whenever possible…” She paused, her voice drifting off a moment as she took a slow inhale. Her face grew hard and severe for a moment before fading again in the gentle femininity, “and to drive home my blade into the hearts of those deserving, knowing or otherwise.”

Her hands clenched and released as she thought back to her young life, her late childhood years lost and weak, wandering in search of her next meal. She had been cornered by adult men, who licked their lips in predatory smiles, had been beaten by proud noblewomen who had found her asleep beneath their windowsill. She had gone days without food before succumbing to reality that she would have to steal or starve. She had worn her hair short to hide tuffs of hair that had been falling out in clumps from poor nutrition. It was all she could bear, the memories boiled a rage deep in her belly. Shaking her head to free her from the burdens of her past, she drew slow breaths, bringing her back to her steady center. In her younger days she may have attacked her companion, his wealthy attire fueling hatred and jealousy. But as she grew she learned, and she now knew not to attach her pain to poor assumptions. She was a walking weapon, a deep cloud of vengeance that rained punishment on those deemed guilty. Woe be to those senseless enough to make that list.
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