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Intermission II (Ascension Arc)

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*Five Weeks Ago*


"Very good," Mehrin said with a smile.  "That shadow over there means that there's low ground in that area.  A clever enemy could hide a company there to make your life interesting.  The Aiel could hide a bloody army in that, but they're... unique."  For a moment, a small smile crossed Eb's face, breaking through the dark granite scowl that was her usual expression.  It was the smile that accompanied each success in the little game that Mehrin had been playing with her in order to ease the tedious miles that passed under their feet.  He would pose tactical questions, and she would try to find the answer.  It passed the time, and Mehrin hoped that she would be able to take the lessons to heart.  For all of Eb's strengths, Mehrin knew that she was not a battlefield commander.  She would likely never command armies.  However, knowing little things that would allow her to read a battlefield could do nothing but help her... not to mention anybody with her.  Since they had left Whitebridge Mehrin had posed several such questions to her, and he had come to look forward to that triumphant smile.


Like every other smile, though, it quickly retreated, leaving only the ever-present scowl in its wake. Mehrin did his best to hide the irritation and disappointment that always came when that smile vanished.  That smile had become one of the few things that Mehrin looked forward during their walk.  Its brief appearance completely changed the woman from walking rage into... something else.  He was not sure exactly what that something else was, but it made the long walk almost pleasant.


Pushing back the broad brim of his hat, Mehrin took some time to survey their surroundings again.  They had been walking down a road that barely deserved the title for the past couple days, and Mehrin had been watching for a specific set of features in the terrain ever since they had chosen this route.  And if his eyes were reading their path correctly, they were about to appear around the next bend.


Ten more minutes of walking proved Mehrin's instincts correct.  The path crossed a shallow stream nearly six paces wide over a mossy bridge that was probably much more sturdy than it looked.  Short brush lined both banks, but upstream in the distance was a dark line that Mehrin immediately knew was a forest.  And if he remembered the map correctly, it was a large one.  Perfect.


"Scenario," Mehrin said, taking the tone that he used when offering Eb yet another one of his tests.  "You are on the run from an enemy with unknown resources and numbers.  This enemy has managed to track you down at least twice.  In response, you have done your best to get away from all major population centers.  You have been walking down some goat trail doing its best to pretend that it is a road for four days, encountering nobody.  To the south, fields that quickly give way to rocky hills.  To the north, a forest.  A stream flows from one to the other.  What do you do?"  It was only a couple steps from the question to the bridge, and Mehrin didn't give Eb the chance to answer.  "You go to ground.  There may be caves in hills to the south, but you are revealed whenever you are out.  The forest is the better option for hiding."  Shooting a grin at his stone-faced companion, Mehrin stepped off the bridge and dropped into the stream.


Mehrin knew immediately that he had made a mistake.  The stream was deeper than he had thought, and the cold water had quickly soaked through his breeches.  He could feel it soaking into his smallclothes and creeping up the fabric towards less pleasant locations.  Forcing a less-than-convincing grin, Mehrin said, "Come on in, the water's..."  The grin slipped as the creeping water reached its unfortunate destination.  "... cold.  The water's very cold.  Shockingly cold, in fact."  Doing his best to hide the wincing discomfort, Mehrin turned north and started wading towards the forest.


There was a brief moment where Mehrin was not certain that Eb would choose to follow him, but a splash from behind him dispelled that concern.  If there had been any doubt of the source of the splash, the sudden outburst of profanity was enough to confirm what he knew was the case.  With a chipper voice that was nowhere near how he was feeling at the moment, Mehrin called back, "Be careful with those supplies, especially the flour.  That forest is going to be home for the next few weeks."


The cursing continued for a moment before being suddenly choked off and replaced with a surprised, "WEEKS?!"


Mehrin sighed.  This was going to be fun...


*One Week Ago*


Taking a handful of the dough that he had been working with for the past fifteen minutes, Mehrin reached into the pot hanging over the embers of their campfire and slapped the handful against the inside of the pot.  He held the dough in place for a few seconds before pulling his hand out of the sweltering heat.  Mehrin had learned several tricks since leaving the Band, and he had decided that cooking had been the most important of those tricks.  The trick of making bread in a cook pot over a fire had been picked up during a run as a caravan guard to the Borderlands, and in the following months he had perfected the technique.  Once the flat breads were cooked they would last a fair amount of time.  Mehrin would not have to do this again for almost a week.


The camp that he and Eb had set up was on top of a rise in the forest that provided a clear view of all available approaches.  A wide canvas covered the entire top of the rise.  A tent was set up beneath the canvas to offer more protection from the elements.  Water was available nearby in the form of a spring-fed pond.  Most importantly, they were completely alone.  During their first few days he and Eb had scouted the area for a couple days in all directions, and all they had found was forest.  It was almost unimaginable that anybody would stumble across them.


Mehrin checked the bread once to make sure that things were baking properly, then started cutting firewood again.  The same concern that had made him add the canvas over their campsite had him cutting more wood to feed their fire.  There was something in the air that made him think that the weather was going to turn, and having dry wood would be crucial if his instincts were correct.


A loud grunt drew Mehrin's attention away from the firewood.  Eb was going through one of her exercise routines, her body a blur as she attacked and defended against an invisible enemy.  Mehrin took a moment to watch her.  Every motion was a study in control, every step and swing a combination of force and conserved energy.  There was a grace to her motions, a sense of beauty that only a warrior could see.  He found himself smiling.


With a shake of his head, Mehrin turned his attention back to the firewood.


Isolation had given Mehrin time to think about Eb's repeated insistence that he start living.  Looking back over the past several years had forced Mehrin to confront a truth about himself: he never let go of anything.  It had always taken the equivalent of a mountain of obviousness falling on his head to make him see the rut that he always seemed to find himself trapped in, and Eb's angry outburst by the river was forcing Mehrin to acknowledge that he was once again clinging to his past.  Ana was gone.  Anya was gone.  The Band was gone.  Drea... Drea was gone.  Renalie... No.  He was not going to add her to the list, no matter what.  Everything that he had ever known and cared for may have been gone, but he would be damned if he would give up on that one spark.


Mehrin's eyes once again drifted back to Eb as she continued her exercises.  Slowly his attention drifted from the critical appreciation of her ability to the grace of her motions, the way her body moved and shifted from moment to moment.  She had a beauty that was unique to her, Mehrin admitted to himself.  Not that he was likely to say anything; Eb would probably cut his eyes out if she guessed that he even thought something like that.  Still...


A rumble of thunder filled the air, driving Mehrin back to his firewood.  It was going to rain, and they would need dry wood tomorrow.




Something had to die.




It had been raining for one solid week.  The firewood was running low, the ground outside their shelter was waterlogged, and it was cold.  Mehrin had not worn a shirt or breeches for the past five days, choosing instead to wrap them in canvas and tuck them into his bag in the tent.  Instead, he sat in his smallclothes and held his greatcoat closed around him, his hat down across his brow.  The rain pattered a steady staccato on the canvas over their camp, a pool forming in the center.  Mehrin had emptied that pool several times in order to fill their canteens and water skins.  More rain was spraying off the top of his hat.


Mehrin could feel his muscles stiffening from the chill, so he did what he had done every time it had happened before: he started training.  Shedding his coat and hat, Mehrin stepped out into the rain, his boots sinking into the mud in the cleared area where he and Eb did their exercises.  Cold rain stung his skin as he hefted his sword, giving it a quick twirl in his hands.  The cold was sinking into him, causing his frustration and anger to burn even hotter.  A warmth that did not help to actually warm him.


With a snarl, Mehrin began attacking the air around him, willing his muscles to fill him with heat while the rain tried to sap the warmth out of him.

Edited by Quibby
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Five Weeks Ago


"Very good... That shadow over there means that there's low ground in that area. A clever enemy could hide a company there to make your life interesting. The Aiel could hide a bloody army in that, but they're...unique."


Eb grinned, despite herself. The bloody Aiel cou-


- It's not the bloody Aiel we're hiding from.


The smile dropped from her face like a stone into sand.


The flaming Aiel had never, that she knew, sent assassins and dreadlords their way, or had them traipsing for weeks across the middle of bloody nowhere. She scowled and focused on the trail ahead until the newest scenario crashed into her thoughts.


"You are on the run from an enemy with unknown resources and numbers -" 


Sounds familiar.


"This enemy has managed to track you down at least twice. In response, you have done your best to get away from all major population centers -"


And barely had a wink of sleep- 


Eb flicked a look Mehrin's way. These strategy games had been a good stretch for the brain over the past few weeks, and it had been ... interesting... considering things from a wider point of view. But here was something more immediately relevant, something more her usual, single, straight-forward field of vision. Almost. She tried not to grind her teeth.


It was the first time in a couple of weeks that this subject had been directly broached. The first half of the journey away from the horror of Whitebridge had been rather... impossible, on her behalf. Yet, here they were.




Mehrin continued talking, walking down the rocky trail. Eb tried to kick her brain into gear, to override the incessant gnawing in her gut. 


"- What do you do?"





The answers were simultaneous in her mind. This time she did grind her teeth, stubbornly, despite the sheer stupidity of her actual choice.


"You go to ground... the forest is the better option for hiding," Mehrin grinned at her, stepped off the bridge and dropped into the stream.


So bloody dramatic... 


... Should've expected that.


She rolled her eyes at the absurdity and watched, one eyebrow raised at him in amusement as he adjusted to his new environment, the water slowly soaking ever higher, the smile freezing on his face. 


She couldn't help but grin as he turned away, rigid in every muscle, to wade towards the forest.


Bloody idiot.


He's right though. She took a deep breath, and followed.




** *   *   * **



She stared, unblinking, at the canvased roof above her. In her mind's eye, the assassin slipped from the thatch and dropped lightly to the floor. "You won't escapebig man. We will... always be there... Waiting. You can't stop... the ine...vitable."


Not for the first time, Eb hurled herself from the floor, snatched up her swords, stalked from the tent.


THW-THWACK! TH-THUNK! All four daggers flew true, striking the front of the stuffed shirt she'd tied around a sapling near a corner of camp. Grass peeked through the slits and tears in the material. In the shadow-filled moonlight, it could've been a darkfriend's blood. It wasn't enough. She yanked each of the knives back and drove them away under her sleeves. She drew her swords in unison, inhaling sharply with the motion, and stepped deliberately away from the trees.


The twin blades trembled ever so slightly as she held them, points forward, in front of her. She closed her eyes so as not to see them. Slammed a wall of stone over the churning in her gut. Ignored the wind. Waited until she was sure everything would be steady. And then, she opened her eyes and spun.


Round, out, up, down.


She sliced at the shadows dancing along the edges of a brighter patch of moonlight, blade following blade in a rapid, sweeping arc.


Too slow!


She turned, shoving the anger into a sideways strike. Repetitive, rolling flicks of the wrist sent both blades whirling; opposing windmills crossing in a blur in front of her chest. She shifted her weight and weapons with the wind, flowing aggressively at the whipping shadows.


Ahead, behind, ahead, beside.


Low, high, low, high.


Beside, behind.


Ahead! Behind!


She kicked and spun. Crossed her blades and flung them forcefully up and out.


Blades in, blades out, blades round. Turn, duck, stab.

Shadow left. Shadow right. Above! Below. Behind. Beside!


On and on she pushed, stretched, strained, sliced. The shadows taunted this way and that, bending and twisting with the branches in the wind. Until the world began to dim with a shift of slow and heavy cloud across the moon.


She stopped, tired arms dropping to her sides. Her chest heaved. Sweat slicked off her skin, her shirt-sleeves clung to slackened muscle. Darkness crept, steadily, across the clearing. It swallowed everything, including the smaller shadows, her blades, her. The wind moaned and whistled. She strained her ears to try and hear some other - any other - sound beneath it and the branches above. It was futile, but she tried.


And she waited. 


White-grey outlines began to gleam along one edge of the offending cloud. Tiny slivers, expanding into a true glow as the cloud moved on. She pursed her lips. The blanket of darkness slipped back towards the trees. Shadows gathered once more into waving, dancing, darkened forms.


She swung her blades up in dual circles to meet them, settling into a ready crouch.


"You," she thought at the shadows, at the dead woman's threat, still lingering in her mind, "won't be the only ones who are here, waiting."


"I will not stop," she whispered.


And she began, again.




 ** *   *   * **




The rain was relentless


Eb stalked towards the puddle at the base of the sapling, scowling. She snatched her knives from the fallen, stretched and sopping grass-sack, kicking at it again for good measure. What was the point in bloody training if the bloody targets kept slipping to the bloody ground of their own accord? She shoved two of the knives into her bootstraps, pushed the rest through the belt of her sodden breeches, and stood.


There's nothing for it.  She cursed and started back towards the tent.


Mehrin emerged just as she reached the canvas, dwarfing her as he straightened and stepped out into the rain.


She turned silently to watch him, studying the wall of muscle that accompanied the stony expression on his face. He hefted the sword. She snapped her attention towards the twirl of the blade and ducked back into the tent. For a second she considered huddling herself under his greatcoat and hat in the entrance and simply watching him slice his way through the rain. She choked on that thought, and at the idea of him catching her in his clothes, cursing under her breath. Blood and blasted, bloody ashes, what was wrong with her?


Watching doesn't stop darkfriends, you dol-


She stomped on all thought and turned to her weapons, bypassing her swords and reaching for the mace with a sudden, explosive urge to hit something, hard.


Maces stop darkfriends.


Dreadlords might be a different story.


Chilled to the point of teeth chattering, she gripped the hilt and headed back out into the rain.


Mehrin was attacking the air around him. Fierce swirls of spray flicked up and away, off the end of his sword as if trying to flee from the blade. In all honesty, she didn't blame them. Her lips twitched upwards. She slowed enough to watch him properly then, drawing up to the cleared area with her dark eyes fixed firmly on his form. She lifted the mace over her shoulder and leaned forward into a set of halfhearted stretches as she watched, testing her legs and feeling the mud suck at the soles of her boots.


Finally, she shook her head, lifting the mace high in the air and waving once to draw the man's attention and indicate her intention to spar. Then she gritted her teeth to keep the chatter at bay, and swung the weapon forwards, to the ready.

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  • 1 month later...









Four basic tactics, an infinite number of possibilities.  Abandoning his normal training routines- attacks and defenses chosen for the way that they flowed from one to the next- Mehrin chose instead to fight the rain itself.  Escaping the unending cold caress of the falling rain was impossible, of course, but the gathered water could still provide a target.


With every strike and every defense, Mehrin moved towards a position where he could strike at the heavier drops that fell from the trees, collected rainwater that came together before falling to the forest floor below.  His feet, dragging through the heavy mud, brought him beneath the largest oak tree in his and Eb's little clearing.  A clean upward strike split a falling droplet.  It traced a smooth path down each side of the waved blade of his flamberge before the spray came off the blade.  With barely any notice of the clinging mud, Mehrin shifted into a defensive stance, the blade of his sword moving in precise lines to defend against imaginary strikes from an implacable enemy.


Mehrin had left his body to react to what it saw and felt.  Years of training had made him capable of separating conscious thought from physical action, and he had more than enough to think about.  Any attempt to center himself into the battle against an impossible enemy drifted away to the silent battle in his own mind.  


Why was he so unbalanced? Why did every attempt to ground himself in reality drag him through the darkest parts of his past? What was holding him back? A motion in the corner of his vision dragged Mehrin back to the real world, a mace waved by a familiar arm. Eb had decided to join the fray. Giving a quick nod, Mehrin shifted back from his silent assault on his own mind and let Eb work her way in. The flamberge spun a quick defensive pattern between him and Eb, a silent prod to drive her towards an attack.


A spar against Eb and her mace was a far different encounter than battling her dual-sword techniques. Even Eb's strongest strikes with her dual sword attacks were no match for Mehrin's solid defense. He could simply stop any attempt to overpower his defenses, and several bouts had shown Eb that such a tactic would only lead to her eventual defeat. The mace, however, was a completely different beast. While Mehrin was confident in the blade that he had forged, no sane smith would want anybody to strike their blade with a hammer, and a mace was far less forgiving than a hammer. Mehrin had seen blades that he had forged shatter beneath a direct strike from a mace. He had one scar, a small cut across his ribs, that demonstrated how devastating a direct blow from a mace could be against a sword. He had been standing several feet away from a sparring pair when one man tried to block a blow from a mace instead of redirecting it. The sword had shattered, sending shards in all directions.

The medics had been surprised that the two eventually recovered.


At a whim, Mehrin's offer for an attack gave way to an assault, a quick series of fast strikes that forced Eb to react to the heavy blows that were a trademark of his style. In a flash, the dance had begun.

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  • 1 month later...

At the last instant, Mehrin's greatsword shifted from the beginnings of a defensive hold to a direct assault.  Eb's hands split apart on the shaft of her mace, sliding swiftly to each end as she grinned unconsciously and redirected the forward energy of her attack upwards into a series of deflective angles, her lunge morphing into a duck and twirl beneath and away from the sword.

She lunged again, this time with a scowl. Would none of today's targets stay bloody still?


Practicing with the mace was never particularly enjoyable, in and of itself. It did, however, allow her to hit hard and cause damage - stop threats - at close quarters in the heat of a battle with the landing of a single blow, and right now she needed to both hit something hard, and get more accustomed to using it. No matter how fast she was with her knives and her swords, they would never match the mace for force and impact. 


As predicted, Mehrin parried her strike and she darted back, focusing on keeping the top-heavy weapon as fluid as possible.


Duck in, spin out.


Deflect. Swing. Deflect, flow. Turn.


His strikes came fast and heavy. The vibrations cast back at her from the wavy blade's deflections were  working their way into her hands and wrists moreso than they would have with her swords. Shifting and rolling the weapon and joints as needed, she grinned again, with a grim determination. Never mind the sopping clothes and the targets that wouldn't stay still and contribute to worthwhile target practice. Even with the mace, this was much more productive than throwing knives.


The dance was furious now, like it always was within seconds of starting a spar with this man. But parts were also different, her weapon choice adding elements of complexity to the composition that they both needed to account for, work on, improve. She settled into it, mind focused, blood pumping, body working in a blur driven by sword strikes and the rapid drumbeat of the rain. Splashes and shuffles through the muddy puddles punctuated their every aggressive move. 


You can't 


She hissed and whipped back around towards him.




She turned the mace to the ready, grinding her teeth.


the inevitable


She scowled, shoving the shadowy threat aside with a curse and attacking, yet again.

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