Part 2 :: Dancing with Danger
The Labyrinth of The Well, Ruined Imperial Palace
Frigid, murky water churned around their ankles, their boots occasionally kicking up bits and pieces of half-rotted flotsam and the occasional larger pieces that looked vaguely human. The metal of their weapons chilled their already numb hands with the same ferocity as the bitter, foul smelling air stinging their exposed faces. Unexpected underwater currents in several places threatened to suck their feet out from under them and wash them into the abyss to a questionable fate.
All the while, shadows from overhead bulkheads cast sinister shadows onto the churning water to hide obstacles and into corners where enemies could easily lie in ambush. Around them, in the absolute darkness that surrounded their pool of dim light came the sounds of water dripping, flowing, splashing, and distantly crashing.
Far ahead of them, Natan and another young ninja scouted ahead, their feet walking on the air barely a finger width above the water. In the flickering light from their torches the werewolf was a ghostly image in shades of dark pewter and the ninja nothing but a brief shift of lighter charcoal in the gloom.
"Natan." Thorn called, holding his torch high to light more of the area.
The werewolf stopped and faced him.
"We will wait here," The blond gestured with the point of a crystal pike at the water, "Too deep to cross at this point."
"Okay. Be back in a moment." The werewolf acknowledged, ducking under a length of sodden cobweb hanging from the ceiling.
With a swallow, the young ninja started after him but stopped short as something slick and damp dragged across the silk of her hood. She gasped a quiet shriek as her inquiring hand found the leggy creature before ripping it and her hood off in the same motion. A big, fat -and very harmless- Marsh Spider fell with a soggy plop into the water before it pulled itself back onto the surface, reoriented itself, and skittered away into the darkness. As her hood was swept rapidly into the gloom, she gaped in the direction the spider had fled. Behind them, Natan could see Thorn’s eyes narrowing as he worked his powers. Hasumi gaped after it once more, briefly, as the unreasonable panic fled her mind. Her chocolate-colored eyes wide in her pale face as she blushed profusely and hurried after him, but her limbs still trembled with badly withheld trepidation. As much as the werewolf hated to admit it, skilled as she was, this girl had no place here.
Natan’s stomach flip-flopped at the scent of her fear as he forced himself to stop, "Get on, Hasumi." He wriggled his back and looked up at her sternly. After being down here for the better part of a day by his reckoning, he’d finally learned her name.
"O..Okay." She nearly leapt on the wolf’s back, tucking her thin legs so tightly against his sides he could scarcely breathe.
Darkness swallowed them as they rounded a corner and plunged Hasumi’s world into a terrifying nothingness; although Natan’s eyes - augmented as they were by magic and his wolf’s senses - easily coped with even the dimmest light and beyond. She shuddered and clung to his back like a burr, a whimper escaping her lips.
"Shhhh..." The werewolf whispered, stalking up to another bend. It was slightly brighter here, the dim morning light filtering through a small crack in the ceiling from higher levels. He blinked at a strong and very familiar scent moving rapidly away from him and onward down the passage. To him, it smelled like a campfire surrounded by lifelong friends or perhaps a warm, friendly kitchen on the coldest night of the year. Perhaps both. He inhaled the scent again, and touched his tongue to the roof of his mouth to inspect the scent closer. Yes, those descriptions were right... But now he could identify the brief scent of spicy cologne and pungent cigarettes from the Mortal World, and all laid over with the chilly scent of something other and indescribable. Natan blinked and straightened as he recognized the scent. ‘Sensei Cale is down here??’ He thought in surprise, the tip of his tail waggling in unconscious lupine excitement. He glared over his shoulder at the appendage until it stopped wagging before turning his attention back to the task at hand.
He met the faint breeze head on, lifting his nose high to scent the air delicately. A scent like cedar saturated with fish oil united with the odors of fish being processed in a greasy, port-side pub. Another odor came a couple moments later, like the stench of a beach the morning after a red tide. A watery babble brought his hackles up briefly and backed him up a step. He swallowed a growl before it touched the depths of his throat and stepped cautiously forward once more.
"It’s too quiet." Hasumi whispered fearfully in his ear, "I...is...is it safe?"
"Hai," Natan said softly. Taking another step, he peered around the bend. There was a dark shape lumbering in the water, the sounds of it’s watery burbles echoing loudly in the corridor. He wouldn’t tell her the good smell he’d just found, it would make her too overconfident. There were millions of reasons Sensei Cale would be down here... "Hai, I’ll protect you."
The wolf peered further around and squinted to make out the dark form; he tried to ignore a spot along the wall at the corner of his vision where the light didn’t touch the stones evenly. Somewhat like the shimmering mirage of water on rock on a hot, summer day, it was the tell-tale sign of something recently made invisible, when the spell was still too new and unstable. Sensei Dais had been the one to teach Thorn how to see it; and, in turn, Thorn had taught him. Natan guessed there were probably but a handful who truly could see the unseen without aid, be it mystical or otherwise.
Beside the wavering spot, the creature’s cobalt and gray tentacles flopped in the water as it moved, tall, dark, and octopus-like even in the gloom. He would bet his whiskers it was a Undertow Leviathan, and a big one at that. It was among the weakest of the water monsters here, but he still didn’t want to tangle with it alone. It had sets of stingers tipped with a neurotoxin which could end a fight rather quickly if you weren’t fast enough. It was at least a few meters tall and only the Gods knew how long those tentacles were. Of course, being boneless, it could be even taller. He began to back up, lifting his paws straight up and down to minimize the chance of scuffing them. He felt Hasumi tense, her body going completely rigid against his back.
He drew in a sharp breath to warn her not to speak.
"Leviathan!!! " Hasumi squealed suddenly, her fingers biting into the skin of his ruff as her hands clenched and the stench of her terror shooting a flood of sour taste partially up his throat.
"Shush!" Natan hissed, but in the duration it had taken him to swallow time had run out. The beast stopped with a wuffle and turned. Natan backed up slowly as he saw it’s main, dark, luminous eye focus on them. In the half-light, he watched its iris open wide before narrowing maliciously. Around the eye, like a mass of warts erupting at once, a nest of multifaceted eyes opened and similarly narrowed on them before it chortled deeply in a choking laugh. It began to move swiftly and inexorably after them. "Kuso!"
Natan turned and ran for all he was worth, not bothering to be silent and careful this time. A dart flew past his head from a buried trap, evoking a gasp from Hasumi as she recognized the quiet, high-pitched whistles it made.
"Incoming!!" Natan bellowed, his paws skidding as he hit a boulder that poked just about the surface before leaping off to the bricks of the narrow walkway.
Ahead; in a bright patch of light, Thorn stepped into view. Natan darted past him, locked his legs, and let his momentum slew him back around to face the monster. Hasumi slid off his back and took a couple of quick, panicked steps backwards as though she would flee.
"Don’t run!" Natan barked loudly, bringing her to a trembling, horrified halt.
Thorn knelt, his arms crossed across his chest. A cold shiver raced up Natan’s spine as he heard the metallic whisper as Thorn’s crystals started to form. The Leviathan rounded the corner and raced for them, it’s tentacles writhing around it’s tall, boneless body.
"Shards of Reality!" Thorn roared, whipping his arms outward and to the sides in one swift, smooth motion. All Natan could see was the rain of crystals as they flew through the air to shatter against anything in their way, but the creature halted as though stunned. As Thorn lowered his arms, signaling the end of his attack, he dropped his illusion on the others as they charged into the fray.
They swarmed around the towering beast, each and every one knowing their parts, muscle memory and instincts taking over to allow them to operate they way they were trained. The swordsmen and women fell in around the back of the creature in a cage of singing steel while allowing the nimble Aren to draw the creature’s attention. The archers and magic users kept back, raining injury on the beast from afar at Aran’s command.
"Fire!" The elven archer barked above the fray before the explosions of spells and whines of arrows drowned even the bellows of the creature.
Aren hummed a wordless song interspersed with shouted insults at the creature. He ducked in and out around the Leviathan, his ornate sword weaving almost lazily in beat to his quiet melody. The weapon nipped and bit at the creature’s slick hide, drawing flecks and runnels of murky, transparent ichor against the assault of the opalescent edge.
Pain maddened, it drew itself up taller and lashed out with seeming clumsiness at the elf who gracefully slipped out of it’s way as if the beast was barely moving. It whipped one of it’s large, envenomed pads. Half as wide as Aren was tall and covered with wicked barbs, it closed in on him with deadly swiftness.
Aren pivoted on the balls of his feet in a deceptively slow movement to lop off the offending appendage, spinning in the same movement to slice across one of the Leviathan’s multifaceted eyes. The Leviathan roared in agony and slapped out again at the elf - not noticing the other cadets attacking from behind. Smaller, stinging tentacles rained into the brackish water as they darted in and out, slicing them through while it was distracted with Aren.
"Fire!" Aran bellowed, this time close. Hasumi inhaled sharply as she realized Aran had backed up to her side. She backed up, but was stopped as he drew her up sharp with his free hand. He shook his head warningly as he let go and readied another arrow.
Abruptly, Natan howled; a long, sustained resonance that pulsed and throbbed to the ear. He lowered his head to breathe, before tipping it back once more. The note somehow managed to be sour and in a perfect cord all at once as it throbbed in dizzying palpitations. Again, and finally once more, he howled.
Thorn raised an eyebrow as the lichen and moss from the walls ripped themselves free, fell to the water, and drifted amidst the spray for the monster in a steady stream. He glanced at Natan as the wolf fell silent and then pointed at the Leviathan. Spires of crystal exploded from the ground and through the creature’s body; entrapping it in a cage of the gleaming material to allow the suddenly carnivorous plants and fungus to do their work.
"Back away." Thorn declared.
The others obeyed slowly, watching in horrified fascination as the creature began to roar and thrash at the stuff eating away at it’s flesh. The prison of crystal splintered bit by bit from it’s struggles before it shattered the rest of the way to dust; but it was too late. A few moments later, the Leviathan’s corpse crashed to the ground, sending up a great spume of stagnant water. A few long moments of silence deafened the chamber as the cadets gazed at the bulk in the water.
"A little overkill, hmmm?" Umbra finally said, raising her eyebrow at the wolf with a demeaning smirk.
"Bite me." Natan growled, using a word he’d overheard a human around his age use under similar circumstances the last time he had escaped to explore the Mortal World.
"Nevermind. That display will likely bring more." Thorn barked, "Move out."
"You said it was too deep -" One of the other cadets began.
"We go around." Thorn blurted, not bothering to look over his shoulder.
Natan stepped beside Hasumi, looked up at her crumbling face, and rubbed his head against her hip. "Don’t worry about it. No harm done."
"I didn’t mean to..." She whispered, tears running down her face as she turned to trudge after the others.
"I know that." Natan said, grimacing at an errant pain in his back as he shifted back to human form. Behind him he could smell the warm aroma of pride overlaying his sensei’s scent; so he persisted. "Don’t worry about it. It happens to the best of us."
The young woman looked down and away for a moment, her jaw length hair falling to hide her face in an ebony veil. When she finally turned her face back to him, it had been swept clean of emotion. She looked away briefly to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand and tuck her hair behind her left ear. Her dark eyes; though, were filled with an infinite sadness he knew all too well. Like Thorn - like many of the cadets - life had taught her that sometimes pain was the only way to tell if you were still alive, but you still didn’t have to show it. She shut her eyes slowly and squeezed them tightly for a brief moment before returning her gaze to the floor.
Natan draped his arm around her waist, pulled her against him, and guided her after the others.
Near The Grotto of the Gateway, Prisons of the Ruined Imperial Palace
The afternoon drew on in an endless drudgery of winding corridors and blind turns. Dead ends disguised real pathways and doors became hidden behind illusions or clever patterns of brick; even as filth on the walls disguised traps of every kind of configuration from bothersome to lethal. Those that could disarm the traps nursed bruised and bloody fingers. Those who could see illusions blinked and rubbed watering, pained, and bloodshot eyes. Each of them weary, chilled, and exhausted to the point of unintentional carelessness.
Cold bit into their muscles, slowing their reactions and numbing them into a stupor. The afternoon heat which should have taken some of the chill off the air failed to reach this deep or was quickly stolen by the winds created by rushing cataracts of water.
Behind them, growing ever smaller in the window of broken wall was the natural grotto from which they’d come.
When they’d left the Palace, they’d all promised that they’d spend as much time in that grotto as they could. They’d find the milky-white and translucent stalactites and stalagmites that formed giant arches like the gates of an ancient monastery. They’d hide their torches and lanterns behind it to make it glow beautifully like it was supposed to, and sketch or paint the cavern. Or maybe they’d hunt for the discarded shells of the rare Grotto Oysters. Maybe they’d take time to cut and polish the shells. Maybe if they felt like it, they’d carefully sand them down into beads and string them on thread from the repair kits in their standard-issue packs to make necklaces for loved ones when they returned to the Palace.
However, between the cold and damp and the pace they kept, they were lucky to have found a single shell each. Only now, from the disappointed glances backwards did it seem everyone was remembering about the Gateway formations they’d neglected to look for.
There were already mutters that it was like they were entertainment for some malicious entity. The cold seemed to gloat in the darkness, laughing maniacally like a drunken and ghoulish king making some great jest of their suffering. Exhaustion and disappointment hung from them like lead weights, blinding them into the endless litany of footfalls. The only thing that kept them going was the heat of their anger.
The source of their anger marched ever onward, only stopping to either bark an order - or insult - to his group. Keizo didn’t seem to feel the cold; in fact he didn’t seem to care about anything they were going through. His cloak, boots, and gloves glimmered with the red highlights of a warming spell and his eyes gleamed with the power of strengthening spells meant to keep him going for days without need for food nor drink - or sleep for that matter. He couldn’t disarm the traps, so he didn’t suffer the inevitable wounds. Nor could he sense traps or illusions, so his eyes didn’t hurt. Finally, he only carried the lightest gear, so his muscles probably didn’t ache. The young man simply didn’t care; or perhaps - in a demented and hurtful way - he enjoyed it.
No matter what it was, tension had mounted by the hour. It had driven the group into smaller inner groups which eroded the cohesiveness of the group as a whole. Even Firerose; normally chipper, feisty, and poised beyond her years, had turned quiet and sullen under Keizo’s leadership.
Alanha stumbled against the soaked hem of her robe and stopped briefly to ring as much of the garment out as she could. Dirty water ran in dank runnels onto the broken cobblestones at her feet and splattered over her heavy leather boots. The sorceress then took a step and scowled as her boots squeaked as her foot fell. Alanha stood on one foot and removed her right boot. She turned it upside down to empty the water from it, hopping to regain her balance so as not to put her stockinged foot down on the stones. Almost against her will, one of her delicate, tender wings stretched out from beneath her cloak in an instinctive effort to steady her.
A strong hand came to rest on her shoulder to steady her in a gentle but firm grip. Alanha glanced up at the other robed sorcerer and smiled appreciatively. She slipped her boot back on and switched feet to empty her left boot.
Svenning, the last necromancer of the old regime and the first of this new dynasty, smiled warmly at her. He gently tucked her wing back to it’s proper position, swept off his own heavy cloak of oiled wool, and draped it across her shoulders. At his side stood Firerose, who gazed up at her patiently with luminous dark eyes that were altogether old and youthful all at once.
Ever the gentleman, he bowed deeply in respect before urging them onward with a hand pockmarked and twisted from years of ritualistic mutilation. The brightly polished wedding band on the stump of his ring finger gleamed cheerfully in the dim light of the passage. Svenning was the oldest of them all, only with their class because he had resisted Talpa for years before he finally relented to become the custodian of some treasure vault. Those years of servitude to the demon lord had left him with a deep wisdom and depth unparalleled within the ranks of the cadets. He could wax and wane between the warmth of a surrogate father figure and the stern coldness of a master necromancer as quickly as one could breathe. Sometimes he even managed to find the razor-thin balance point between both extremes with an eerie, natural grace.
Alanha smiled gently as Svenning almost unconsciously accepted Firerose’s hand into his marred one. She found the situation extremely poignant and made no move to hide her wide smile. Alanha herself was but a couple years younger than him, though at fifty years she was barely considered old enough to marry. Though he had convinced her to go against tradition and marry young, if it wasn’t for his immortality, he’d look like an old man. He had served her father, Lord Bairon, for many years when he was younger. Many of his tasks had not been ones of service, but rather companionship in order to provide Alanha with a friend her own age while growing up.
At a brief sensation in her lower stomach, she absently traced her hand down until remembering at the last moment and changing it’s direction so it came to rest on the top of her satchel filled with magical apparatus and first aid supplies. The motion didn’t fool the necromancer - he had known her for far too long for things to remain a secret for long.
"I remember how it was with my wife when she was expecting our oldest." He whispered deliberately, as though he had to think about every word before he said them. His speech was butchered almost beyond recognition by his heavy accent, but still understandable with practice and patience.
Alanha smiled softly. She was just barely showing, the swell mostly hidden by the baggy cloth of her robe, but a quick motion of her hand to pull it taunt against her stomach revealed it easily. She let her hand fall and once more the cloth fell to conceal her.
"It’s wonderful!" She agreed softly, smiling almost distractedly. "I don’t think my husband and I are ready..."
Svenning opened his mouth to reply when Firerose stumbled against him and would have fallen if he hadn’t caught her. She blinked and looked up, startled. He gazed down at the fire elemental with a gruff gentleness, "Fall asleep?"
The girl nodded, shook her short, black hair away from her tanned face, and laid her head against him. Her voice was youthfully cross as she muttered, "I keep drifting off standing or walking... I bet the other groups have taken rests, why can’t we? We’ll just end up getting hurt at this rate... or worse... stupid Keizo..."
Svenning nodded in agreement and stopped to kneel in front of her. Alanha paused to watch them over her shoulder. Firerose needed no urging as she climbed onto the necromancer’s back, hooking her legs over his offered arms and wrapping her arms loosely around his neck. The necromancer straightened and fell back into step beside the sorceress, his face already lapsed into the cold expression of a master necromancer, unfriendly and dangerous.
Alanha fell into step with him, matching her pace to his; the metal of her wizard’s staff touching the ground with a faint metallic ring with every step. She matched the expression Svenning wore in her own way, making her face a warning mask even though her boredom caused her mind to wander. After a while, a deep sigh emanated from Firerose as she fell asleep on the necromancer’s back.
The pathways drifted past her in a cadence of darkness and wet, punctuated occasionally by the brief annoyances of cobblestones raised slightly from the others, no doubt by the cataclysm that had befallen this place at some point.
"Badamon... created a.. work of art... when he created this... place..." She heard Svenning mutter to himself in Japanese before switching over to his native tongue. The woman looked up, tucking a loose strand of her dark auburn hair back behind her left ear in an unconscious habit. The man didn’t seem to notice her gaze as he walked, his sweat-soaked hair bobbing slightly with each step. He no longer bothered to dye his hair black as he had once done, though his wet-sand-colored hair still bore patches and streaks of black throughout. She returned her gaze to the path, letting her mind drift as she listened, wearily fascinated by his muttered phrases.
The pathway continued ever onward, footfall after footfall in the half-light that surrounded them.
"Stop!" Svenning hissed abruptly, drawing her short with a brutal jerk. Alanha stopped and blinked in surprise; they were someplace vastly different than the pathways they had been walking. The ache in her calves told her they had walked even further, even though she didn’t remember having walked it. ‘Firerose is right, we keep walking and sooner or later we’re going to blunder right into something nasty.’ They were almost right on the others, who had drawn short in the hall of a large room.
Along the walls laid empty firepots marked with arcane symbols, unlit yet somehow giving off a faint, dark light. The chamber was dark, and dead feeling, like one had walked into a tomb. Bones had been swept into small piles out of the way, some under a table covered in a dark tapestry that was stained by droplets of dried blood. A brocade robe embroidered with dizzying patterns of green-glowing thread laid draped across a chair upholstered with some pale material complete with gnarls in the shape of fingers... With a gasp of disgust, Alanha realized the chair was upholstered with human flesh.
"A necromancer’s study..." Firerose observed with an inaudible yet clear voice. She pulled back suddenly with an audible snap of her simple Gi and a whisper from her silk and leather shoes. The hallway brightened into a dazzling flash of light before darkening once again. The Firerose-shaped fire elemental stepped forward once more; a ghost edged in a faint glow like that of embers shrouded in soot.
Svenning nodded in agreement before his face changed into a mask of horror. Alanha’s gaze leapt up to see Keizo striding boldly into the room. The necromancer darted forward with a swiftness unlike him to draw Keizo out of the room with a viciousness that made the arrogant young man hiss in pain.
His quiet, accented voice shook with fury - perhaps fear - as he shook Keizo and glared into the lieutenant’s eyes, ".... you never enter a necromancer’s study! You never have any idea what has gone on or what may still be going on - !!!"
"And you are out of line, Old Man." Keizo spat as he tore himself free from Svenning’s grip, "I’m your superior -"
"You will only lead us to our deaths! You are nothing but a stupid... arrogant... pathetic... little...little.... boy." Svenning ground out between his teeth. He roared something else in his native tongue that made Alanha blanch from its vulgarity. She had never realized the necromancer had known words like that, though it seemed inane to think he wouldn’t.
"How dare you!" Keizo roared above Svenning, apparently understanding him, spittle flying from his mouth as his face turned ugly with rage.
Firerose glanced up at Alanha as the tension in the overall group grew ever closer to the point of ignition. They could both see the fine tremble in Svenning’s marred hand, a warning that he was just a mere fraction of a second away from striking Keizo. The other’s hands were slowly inching towards their weapons. Some, she knew, would defend Svenning... others would defend Keizo because defending their commanding officer had been driven into them to the point of brainwashing. Alanha nodded at the child and stepped forward.
"Will you please be," Alanha said as she raised her wizard’s rod, the jewel at the top gleaming faintly. She struck it soundly against the cobblestones, as her voice boomed loud enough to rattle the stones around them, "QUIET!"
The echo of the word "quiet" rung and thundered for long moments, ever growing fainter before vanishing into the air. Alanha apologized mentally to the child within her belly as she felt it protesting the use of such magic in wild, panicked flutter. Another full minute passed before the stun spell finally wore off and allowed the group to move once more.
Alanha took a deep breath, trying to ignore the motion within her, and said as sternly as she could, "Svenning checks the room before we move on. Until he says it’s safe, we rest. Anyone who says otherwise will answer to Lady Kayura herself. And trust me, she’ll know." She turned to Keizo with a softer look, lowering her voice to one of reason, "On the battlefield, a soldier has to know when to disobey orders, Keizo. One day it might mean life or death."
The young man sneered at her comment, but stepped aside with a look of disgust and apathy. Alanha heard him mutter something obscene about her but ignored it.
Alanha reached out and gently took Svenning’s trembling hand. He squeezed his eyes shut and breathed a deep, cleansing sigh. He shook his head at her, indicating his great aversion towards Keizo at the moment. Alanha smiled softly and kissed his cheek sympathetically. She squeezed his hand once more and began to slip around the room, speaking quietly to each cadet in turn.
Firerose turned slightly and flared white hot a moment, though she didn’t seem to be radiating any heat. The elemental smiled and pointed at the stones on the floor, saying in a sing-song and impish way, "All dry."
The group slowly said their thanks, some in a low mutter while others in a louder tone.
A motion out of the corner of her eye made her turn around. There, at her side, stood a young man grinning at her rakishly. He ran a gloved hand with questionable stains through filthy, curly, green hair before returning it to his hips. His face was a mask of grime and ooze from under which gleamed dark green eyes. She had long come to associate those eyes with trouble and assumed the worst from him confronting her like this. She braced her hands on her hips and let some of her ember-encrusted skin flare a little more. Normally she would stay close to Ciresh, whose code of honor and ethics frightened away all but the bravest - or stupidest - of would-be tormentors.
She had yet to decide which Tojiro was.
"Surprised you made it this far, bitch. You aren’t half bad without the firefly, you know that?" He blurted out at last, his deep voice rough with the thick accent stereotypical of the Lower City, before turning to settle down on the stones. Firerose grinned to remain civil and shrugged; it was the best form of thanks she’d ever get from him.
She settled cross-legged before Alanha as she conversed quietly with another cadet, careful not to touch her, and watched Svenning cautiously enter the unknown necromancer’s room.
"Uhhh, Squirt?" Tojiro muttered once more, his voice quiet and almost feeble sounding.
Firerose rolled her eyes and glowered at him from over her shoulder, "Yes?"
"Could you manage some heat, please?" He asked pathetically, bringing nods and hopeful looks from the rest of the group.
Firerose flashed Alanha a brief grin as she stood. ‘Leave it to her to say the right things to bring us together again...’ She slowly glowed brighter as she slowly fed heat into the room, easing the heat in slowly so as not to make it uncomfortable for anyone. She slowly turned, watching everyone relax with the increasing warmth, but stopped when her eyes reached Tojiro.
He sat against the wall with his knees raised, his right hand cradled against his chest and his head bowed deeply. As if sensing her gaze, he lifted his face briefly before dropping his head back down. Firerose was sickened by what she had seen. His face was ashen and his eyes glazed with pain, and now that she was paying attention, even his breathing didn’t seem right somehow.
Firerose projected her alarm and concern into him, using her people’s method of speech to carry the message to him. Her people communicated in a series of images and emotions woven together into immensely detailed and complex tapestry. It worked with humans, sometimes, but it was pale in comparison.
His reply was hazy and undetailed, but it was clearer than she could expect to normally get from a human. It showed the image of the last trap they’d been through, of him working to disarm it. It moved to a close-up of two metal orbs mounted on curved shafts. A hand - his?- moving forward to cut the bottom orb off... then the gears of the trap suddenly moving, sending the top orb slamming into the back of his hand before his other hand could stab his dagger forward to stop the gears. She shook herself free of his explanation as his memory clearly projected the sound of breaking bone.
Before she could ask if he needed help, his left hand waved her concern off before gesturing towards Keizo. Firerose understood. So far Keizo had taken every show of pain or weakness and had taunted them with it.
Tojiro gestured briefly to his temple, and she connected again with a questioning emotion. He showed an image of him having his hand broken several times in the past by traps, the hand being set and bandaged, then doing it again when it had healed. Reassurance permeated the images, though she didn’t share his optimism. He smiled softly at her once more before lowering his head back to his chest.
She looked helplessly at Alanha and wished once more that Sensei Cale had placed her in Ciresh’s group.