The Hopeful Tomorrow

Three Hopes for Humanity

[Eligor]

Gair, Luna, and Pipino are suddenly thrust from the aether onto a warm and squishy floor, a sudden and extreme bout of aether sickness overcoming each and every one of them, rendering them temporarily motionless as the nausea washed over them like a suffocating wave.
There was a banging not far away from them, desperate and crazed. It would not take a genius to realize that the source of the banging was on the other side of a door at the far side of the room, a the pale blue light illuminating the room seeming to outright vibrate and shake in response to the frenzied banging. Someone was desperate to get to where the newly assembled group was, but why?

[Pipino]

Pipino had been high up on some cold, icy, Ishgardian wall, eyes fixed on the land below, watching and waiting for the inevitable clash that would come soon enough. She was focused enough that her eye began to play tricks on her. Little pinpricks dotting the snows that she could not tell were real or her eye simply too tired to see things properly. She pulled up her goggles and rubbed at her eye before lowering it again and resuming her watch.

It was then that she felt that unsettling tug at her entire essence, an instant that seemed an eternity form the discomfot she felt as she landed rougly onto an unpleasantly textured surface. The woman groaned as she simply lay there and tried to will herself not to give into the sickness, but she failed, vomitting the meager rations she had recently consumed.

She winced as she heard the pounding, unable to tell if it was coming from some manifestation of physical discomfort, or from some other source. Once her wave of sickness had dissipated for the moment, she pushed herself weakly to her knees and surveyed her surroundings, eye landing upon the other two who shared the space with her.

“Luna…and…and Gair..?” she asked, clutching her stomach weakly as she found she was not quite done, lurching to her side and vomiting once again. Whether Gair would recognize her when he came to was a bit of a coin toss. The blue hair was gone, replaced with a sandy blonde mane braided in a lose, long braid down her back. She was wearing goggles, a single lens opaque and blackened over her left eye. She was dressed in a battered and beaten Ishgardian Machinist's uniform, the fabric patched and repaired many times over by now and stained heavily dirt, soot, and here and there, a little bit of blood, remnants that told the story of the extent of her fighting and the state of Ishgard thus far.

The banging continued and she eyed the door that seemed to be its source, not quite feeling up to making that long journey to see what was amiss.

[Luna]

The cold Ishgardian knight lay in a heap on the cold floor, violently brought into this new place. The nausea washes over her aggressively, taking all she can to remain whole. Her once pristine and proud mail was now tattered and dirtied as threat and action had removed the resources and necessity to make it shine. Her white hair was bound up tightly as ever and perhaps a bit more frayed. Slowly does she push up from the floor after what felt like many minutes.

There is a metallic clank as she comes to a stand, her left arm now replaced by some metallic contraption resembling an arm. Skysteel and aether combined to give her back what was taken from her during the fight to survive. As she comes to a stand, she runs a warm natural hand over her face, inadvertently tracing the scars that had found their way onto her face anew. Adding to her left eye scar was another one, though they were now both blocked out by a thick black eyepatch. A slice also runs across her left cheek now as well as a small number of indescribable minor cuts. Her face is weathered and cold, the threat beheld to them having worked it's way through her psyche as much as her body.

“Miss Pipino?” she calls out as she hears the woman speak her name. She turns around, looking for Pipino for a moment before locating her. Quickly does she rush over, bending down to put her hands on the woman's shoulders. “What are you doing here?” she asks, taking a moment. “What am I doing here? Where are we?” she adds rhetorically, knowing they had no way to actually know.

[Gair]

Birthed from the aether, a haggard highlander lays on the warm floor after being expelled violently onto it. His coat soaked in the remnants of the aether that summoned him here, pooling in inky black puddles on the ground. He starts all at once and coughs up black bile, it is not a gentle rousing as he retches violently. Laboring to even come to his knees, he stares down into the combined pool of gastrointestinal fluid and aether beneath him. One might not entirely recognize him at first glance: he sports a massive bushy beard slaked with the mixture of his bodily expulsions. A veritable mane of hair long enough fall down beneath his shoulder blades, of which the top is gathered in a ponytail cinched by a blue cloth.

The nostrils of Gair's twisted nose flare to take in the scents around him, other than the scent of rust and salt that he lets off. Smelling as if he's done nothing but bathe in saltwater and blood for a few winters, betraying the rust on his plate armor. The brass burnishing on his pauldron is slaked with tarnish and grime, barely marking him with the familiar scales of a long gone city. *This has to be the afterlife if those two are here.* His expression soured with every droning pound on the door, he'd rather be dead in goddamn peace.

“We're dead,” Gair's voice is gravelly, ravaged by biting and salty winds. With a shift, he barely manages to lift his head fully and snatch what remains of a broken crook from a loop in his belt. Fingers tightening around the wood as his ire bubbles over to declare with a cold fury. “And I'm gonna kill whatever in the fuck is makin' that noise…”

[Pipino]

Pipino looked over her shoulder as Luna's worried touch supported her at her back before she shrugged away from under it, taking in Gair's more unfamiliar appearance with difficulty. Shakily rising to her feet and making her way to the wall that held the door, she leaned heavily against it.

“I do not know whether I should be flattered or insulted that you think well enough of me that I would be some herald of a heaven, or some inmate with you in a hell, Gair,” she intoned, preparing her weapon to cover whoever planned on opening that door in a bored way as if it were just another mindless creature of the horde waiting on the other side that needed to be ended for its own welfare. “Should we be dead, I should think the Lifestream would be kind enough to at least let us regain the things we lost. I think we have remained unfortunate enough to have managed to continue to live against better judgment.”

She regarded Luna. “As for where we are and why, I suppose we will not know until we open the door and discover that truth for ourselves. It cannot be much worse from where we came, I wager.”

Her voice was confident and cold, still proper, but lacking the warmth it once had, her speech pattern falling into a near monotone as if her wit had been weathered away by the grindstone that sharpened and supported her ability to fight.

[Eligor]

The door was not kind or strong enough to wait any longer. With an ear popping shriek, the metal door is slowly torn open from the middle before bursting apart entirely, a figure of a lalafell spilling into the room along with bright white light, ironically cloaking the figure completely in shadow—save for its head which spotted three lights glowing brightly. A blue left eye, along with a Golden right eye and what appeared to be a gem on its forehead. The figure stopped at the sight of the three in the room, closing its glowing eyes and falling still.

“Why is it you?”

The voice of a little girl broke through, now slowly cracking over with distress.`

“WHY IS IT YOU?!?”

[Luna]

The knightess stands up at hearing Pipino speak the man's name. “Gair? No…” She begins to slowly turn to look at the rough form of the man she once knew, a crack in her cold exterior breaking through. “So you yet live…. Praise be to Halone…” she speaks with a small amount of relief, her skysteel arm coming to a rest on her chest. “We have much to–” she finds herself cut off as the wailing crests through the now opened doorway. Instinctively does her right hand go for the blade at her waist, drawing and pointing it at the Lalafell figure that had intruded upon their improvised reunion. Aether flows out from the side of her metal arm and forms a bright shield emblazoned with the Ishgardian crest. She moves to put herself between her two companions and the figure, aether shield held out.

[Eligor]

The glowing eyes narrow at the drawn blade, and the room began to shake.

“Stand aside.”

[Luna]

The woman does not move or falter, her shield still held out more than her blade. She does not speak.

[Pipino]

Pipino had the decency to at least muster some type of alertness as the girl dashed into the room, wary and ready but not at the point of willing to point her weapon at her despite it being ready in her hand. She gave Luna a careful look, as they initiated their standoff.

Moving her gaze to the girl, her eye raked over form and spotted the gem, stopping at that point. Crystals meant war, death, and infection. There was no reasoning with their bearers, a tenet drilled into her mind via her training. The elderly, weak looking women, children, anyone - they were targets for elimination that needed to be freed. Halone was at their backs.

“And here I was hoping you might have an answer to that question. By all means, I have a watch to keep and a city to help through another day. If you are not satisfied, perhaps you could do us the favor of returning us.” She paused. “Or, keep us here, and I can send yet another message to your Master through your elimination. The choice is yours.”

[Gair]

The once jovial asshole just stares at Pipino, fixated on her sandy blonde locks for a moment. No confusion or surprise present in his haggard features at the shift in appearance, only a recognition in the shift of appearance. *If this is hell, it's a damn gentle thing so far. But fuck this noise.* By all means this reunion should have some more sentimentality between them, but all he can offer Luna is a cold stare and lift of his shoulders. There are more pressing matters…

He picks up on the rasping of Luna's blade from it's scabbard, ingrained instinct to follow the knightesses lead. From the opposite side of the first broken crook, Gair takes up another stick of some sort of broken hafted weapon. On closer inspection, he hasn't a single blade on him anymore. Just the pair of broken sticks he brandishes in either hand.

Why is it ever us, he can only wonder. “Because the Twelve are dead and the world is cruel, speak sense, kill yourself or leave. I don't care which.” With the door conveniently open, he is the first to advance on heavy footfalls. Staring at the Lalafelin girl, he'd rather be anywhere than purgatory to reminisce about fonder times with these two.

[Eligor]

The shaking grew more intense, and fire began to burst from the lalafell’s body. When she spoke, her voice seemed not to come from her directly, but everywhere around them, seething over with rage.

”Insignificant insects, you dare point your pathetic toys at me?”

Without warning hot gusts of wind suddenly enveloped the three before throwing them against a squelching and meaty wall, pinning them there. The lalafell walked past the group to the back of the room, kneeling down to touch something obscured by her sleeves.

“….I told you not to do it…”

[Pipino]

Pipino braced her stance and placed her free arm in front of her face, leaning forward as if she could avoid being swept up in the sweltering wind, failing sooner than later and letting out a cry and a gasp as her body smacked roughly against the fleshy wall, struggling against it ferociously, in an almost feral way as she made noises of frantic effort to free herself. Her teeth were bared as she strained against what held her there, every muscle in her body straining to be released.

[Luna]

The knightess finds herself pushed violently back, flying off her vigil as she careens into the oddly fleshy wall. She struggles to hold her aetheric shield up, ever careful. She grits her teeth against the oppressive heat and maintains her wall-bound defense, ready to try and break free to protect her companions if needed.

[Gair]

Gair's attentions dart around, the presence of fire forces him to hold up his broken canes in defense. As if they were hilts themselves and their threat was much longer than sight suggested. *You daft bitch, I didn't point anything at you. Yet.* Holding fast for a few moments in the face of the wind that threatens to pick him up off the ground, death it is. Hitting the wall, he thrashes against this prison like a wild animal with his companions. Ramming his jagged sticks against the wall on his imprisonment. *I'm going to add that jewel in your head to my necklace.*

[Eligor]

At Gair's thrashing movements, the wind pressure increased on the entire group, threatening to squeeze the very air from their lungs in a violent vacuum. It was not to be however, as soon a figure appeared in the entrance to the room, the sound of more metal tearing as the tall and curvy female figure made room for herself to enter.`

“Milady,” The voice called out, “Do not make her sacrifice one completely in vain. There might still be hope.”

At this declaration, the pressure ceased growing more intense.

“Look at them for yourself,” The lalafell declared, “There is no hope. They are nothing but a mockery of what should have been.”

The lalafell disappears into what appears to be a portal, and the three are suddenly dropped to the floor, leaving the three of them alone with the lone tall figure in the doorway, clothed head to toe in an almost impossibly tight body suit, her every curve acutely defined safe for her arms, which extended far behind her as long somewhat loose sleeves from (presumably) the wrist down.

She sighed as the lalafell woman disappeared completely from view, her head pointed still to where the lalafell had been moments before, and where now only a tiny stump of what appeared to be hair remained.

Only it was not just a clump of hair, but seemingly the remains of a head as well. In fact, upon closer inspection and with the light flooding the room, the group could easily tell that what was on the floor now were the remains of what was once a lalafellin head, with a melted left ear and missing left eye. It was dissolved from the top row of teeth down, and if one were to look even further one could see pulsating veins extending from it. Indeed, it seems that the flesh that now seemed to cover most of the room was in one way or another connected to the remains of this head, which was now barely more than a clump of blonde hair and a blurred over lavender colored eye.

[Pipino]

Pipino fell to the ground in the midst of her own thrashing and pushed herself up to her feet, clumsily jogging over to view the remains closer, her eyes wide as she shook her head in disbelief, recognition painting her features.

“Why…. why is she here? What did she do?” she asked in a calm, but tremulous voice before she swallowed largely, looking down at what was left of the girl whose very existence she denied. She took a moment to look over her shoulder at the tall woman, calmly waiting for an answer.

[Eligor]

“She wanted to save the world.”

[Gair]

Gair slumped down from the wall, having torn himself up a bit of the flesh on the way down with his stick. Only that any blood availed from the wounds he inflicted on his prison now protrude from it, a jagged axe of frozen crimson. *More words,* he laments internally. He hacks out a rough cough as the air begins to rush back into his lungs, the sensation of being in a vacuum not at all a pleasant experience. No less ire-inducing either. He uses the sanguine weapon to push himself to a stand, which slowly begins to melt and leave a trail of blood on his advance for the door.

“They were right, there is no hope. What good could come of bringing a cripple knight, a rich girl and a dead man to this place?”

[Luna]

Luna pushes back from the wall as the aero assault ceases, eyes locked on the tall figure now present. Slowly does she approach, shield held in front of her. She regards her Lalafell companion now standing with the strange 'remains'. As the figure speaks does the Knightess's head snap towards her, listening.

A scowl breaks across Luna's face as Gair speaks of them and their lack of hope, but she does not speak. Internally, she agrees with the man to some extent. What use is there for a knight of Halone broken by the world?

[Eligor]

The tall woman is even taller than she initially appeared, dwarfing easily even some of the tallest of Roegadyn despite clearly being shaped like a toned Hyur beneath the tight outfit.

“You three were not the target, our high priest was.”

She claps her sleeves together and lifts her leg a bit.

“Hungry? Tis difficult to be hopeful on an empty stomach.”

[Gair]

“I could eat,” Gair states to nobody's surprise and loops the hook of his sundered crooks onto his belt once more. In spite of the piss, vinegar and edge he has let off since his appearance, his stomach growls something fierce. *I could strangle a man for a bite to eat about now.*

[Pipino]

Pipino looked down once more with curiousity at the remainder of the head and sighed, transfixed as she gazed upon it. She chewed at her lip a little as she processed the woman's words. It had been a long time since these other people and their strange terms had bothered her in such a direct way, the gears of her cognition oiling themselves slowly before starting back up for some inevitable riddle she would be expected to pursue an answer to.

She managed at last to free her gaze and walk away, eyes cast down and staring off into some horizon the others would not be able to find, lost in thought as she tried to piece some logic together.

“I am hungry,” she stated simply, managing to raise her gaze. “If it is food you are offering, I would be remiss to deny it.”

[Luna]

Luna remains at the ready, her sword and shield held out. She is clearly unmoved by the offer of food. “I have naught desire for sustenance proffered by someone as shadowed and suspect as you. I do not purchase your peddled pleasantry.” she says, her tone disconnected and low. She does not advance or make any action however.

[Pipino]

Pipino looked to Luna, that one visible eye looking up at her. “It would be foolish to refuse. There will likely be battles to come and you need the sustenance, regardless of how unpleasant you find the source. I personally know I lost the rations I had eaten upon our arrival,” she pointed out in an unabashed way. This Pipino had little to blush about anymore, it seemed.

[Luna]

The woman does not remove her sight from the figure. “Mayhap you have lost your steel but i have not. I would not be so quick to receive of someone so freely when the circumstances are as extenuating as they are presently.”

[Eligor]

“So two to dine then! This way please!”

The woman sucks out of the room and out of view.

[Gair]

Gair's attentions flit between Pipino and Luna bickering about food and it's source. Never mind, this is hell. In some sort of pity for Luna who was left out of the food negotiations, he fishes out a waterlogged piece of bread from his pocket. Some sort of green mold having gripped it for a day since, he holds it out to her.

“Because we were friends…you can have my good bread.”

[Luna]

Only once the woman leaves does Luna relax, stowing her blade as the shield dissipates and the remaining aether re-absorbs into her arm. She turns to Gair finally, seemingly looking down her nose at him. “I do not desire your lingering rations, Gair. Hold onto it for yourself. I am fueled by Halone.” It helped that she was not particularly hungry at the moment, having kept her figurative and literal lunch intact.

[Pipino]

“We all are, Luna, but she cannot do much to a body when it has not the fuel to continue.” She pauses and sighs, looking between the two of them. “This is the most bizarre reunion. I hardly know what I ought to say at this point. Perhaps there is naught left, or perhaps we shall find an opportunity over a meal.”

Pipino took one last moment to look over her shoulder at the macabre memorial of sorts that brought her here, expression full of some strange heaviness, before she stepped toward the light where the others had entered from.

[Eligor]

Unlike the fleshy nightmare womb that the group entered from, the area outside and in the light was quite….posh, especially for the current times. The floors and walls appeared to be some kind of marble and clearly cleaned to a shine. The hall was well lit and the sound of music played in the distance. And here and there, people dressed in humble robes walked here and there in sparse pairings, laughing and seemingly at ease.

The tall woman was already quite a distance down the hall, half skipping even as she walked.

[Pipino]

It had been so long since Pipino had the luxury of being anywhere clean and bright, let alone peaceful. She gawped at her surroundings as she followed the woman, gaze casting around as her boots clicked against the floor. She felt dirty and savage in such an environment, some violent compulsion baked into her being from the old days roaring forth and chastizing her for daring to be in such a nice place in such a state.

She picked up her pace and lightly jogged a bit to close the distance with the woman. “…Where are we?”

[Eligor]

“The sanctuary.”

Her answer was simple. Matter of fact.

[Luna]

Luna follows behind the zippy Lalafell, taking in the sights herself. Even after all this time, such frivolous luxury… She frowns internally, maintaining her persona outwardly of ice and knighthood. The realm is under threat and these people are living a life of opulence. Disgusting. Just like highborns.

[Pipino]

“And where is this sanctuary?”

[Eligor]

“Where indeed? What does it matter dear?”

“You are safe here.”

[Gair]

“It figures some cultist nutjobs would have a holdfast at the end of the world,” Gair licks his fingers for any remaining morsels left on his fingers from that moldy snack, lapping up some of that delicious wall-blood that had also birthed them not a bell prior. The highlander's very presence sullies the general cleanliness of the hall, a veritable pox that is insulting to all senses, *even* the sixth.

[Pipino]

Pipino folds her arms, drumming her fingers against her upper arm in an anxious way. “I am unsettled. I am meant to be keeping watch, to protect the city. If I am not there… they might not be prepared for the next wave. I worry over the distance, and that I shall not be returned in time.”

[Eligor]

“If you speak of below, it is already too late. Rather than worry over what is lost, it is better to consider what to do next.”

The group comes to what appears to be a large cafeteria, the scent of roasted meat and spices permeating the air.

“Like deciding what you want to eat! I need to tell the cooks!”

[Gair]

“And I've more crystal blighted to slaughter, you took me from my ship,” Gair hastens to add with Pipino's reference to duties elsewhere.

[Luna]

“I am displeased with my suddenly being plucked from my vigil in Ishgard. I am needed in the city and further, I must protect Lucatiel. If aught happens to her while I am forced away, I will not hesitate to visit such a fate upon your Twelvesdamned 'sanctuary'.” Her sentence becomes more growled as she speaks.

[Eligor]

“That is more than unwise. Also quite impossible.”

She turns, bowing in a way that made her appear a bit like a scarecrow

“I am Luz by the way. Nice to meet you all. Might I have your names?”

[Luna]

The knightess growls further, “Temple Knight Luna Neaucant.”

[Gair]

“Pick a sound you make with your mouth and stick with it,” Gair's introduction is less than helpful.

“These two prefer 'Gair',” He finishes that thought.

[Pipino]

“I have no preference in the food I am served and it has been long since I have had the luxury of choice. Whatever is easiest to prepare while providing the most nutrition will do well enough.” Pipino sighed at Gair's introduction. Sure, they had all lost much but what little hope she had placed in interactions feeling like something once normal had long fled. “I am Pipino Pino.”

[Eligor]

“Ah, I remember you now. I thought I recognized that flavor. But seeing as choice seems strained…how about soup? I know our other guest just requested some, so I know there should be a pot ready. Easy on the stomach too!”

She motions towards some tables.

[Pipino]

“I believe I remember you as well, in passing,” she confessed, taking a seat where it was offered. “Unless there are many of you. It is hard to tell with the…garb you wear.” Her posture was still as polite and stiff as it always was, perhaps moreso given the unfamiliar surroundings. “Soup will do well enough.”

[Luna]

Luna remains standing near Pipino, ready to grab her blade at a moment's notice. She continues looking around, unsure of what to make of it all more than she already had. She listens to the conversation, curious but still upset.

[Eligor]

Luz turns her head towards Gair, and with a hop, skip, and a jump, she disappears away into what is presumably the kitchens, leaving the group alone for now.

[Gair]

Gair looks around the cafeteria awkwardly, he's a sore thumb here for certain.. *A meal with these two is the last thing I expected.* He shuffles over to a seat opposite of Pipino and rests his heavy gaze on her, then Luna. “Leave it to Ishgard to thrive, first Dalamud, then the cold, now this.” After a breath, he homes in on Pipino to dig into her insights. “Whose head was adorning the floor, then?”

[Pipino]

Pipino watched the woman dash away and cast her eye down to look at the table, dangling her feet idly as she soaked in the awkward silence that fell over them, until it was broken by Gair. “It was Novine,” she said simply, not looking up.

[Luna]

She looks at Gair for a moment. “Perhaps if the mainland city-states had been better prepared for such a war, they would not have fallen so hard. They were so *weak*.” she speaks scathingly.

[Gair]

“Ala Mhigo couldn't even handle resting in the East Shroud, or one bad king.” Gair plants his elbow on the table and rests his chin in it, content to come to a stop for the moment. At Pipino's news that it was Novine's sacrifice, he looks out vaguely to the chamber where they had emerged before. What a waste, that bastard girl's life for the three of us. Back to the lalafelin woman, he offers a nod that goes unseen. An apology on his lips that doesn't come, there was no point now.

[Luna]

The name rings in her mind as if it meant something, but nothing of import comes to her. *Whoever she was, such a demise is awful.*

[Eligor]

“Ah, I thought I recognized those eyes. Yes, it has been a while since I have seen them. I'm almost surprised you are still alive young man.”

The voice came from behind Gair, a woman in a ratty looking hood, unlike the residents and their clean robes. Her face was obscured by a mask, but by how silently and suddenly she seems to have appeared, one might be inclined to believe she was somewhat like Luz.

[Pipino]

“The city states had no reason to expect such an attack, Luna, and Ishgard is only strong as those from the mainland states that fled to protect her, as well as the mercy of the Dravanians that Ishgard had demonized for so long. Do not act as if Halone and Ishgard alone have kept hope alive.” she pointed out, taking personal offense to the statement, that single eye looking up at Luna before her gaze was distracted by the newcomer, regarding her cautiously.

[Eligor]

“Oh~ that is certainly a well enough thought out hypothesis. I would believe it to be such were I not possessed of more intimate information.”

[Gair]

“Only in the loosest definition of the word,” Gair answers the masked woman that flanks him, turning about face to stare up into that mask with a dull glare. He was like some sort of predatory animal that had come to a rest, appeased by the promise of sustenance. “Normally I hate people who hide behind masks,” he gestures toward her vaguely. “Expound.”

[Luna]

Luna looks down at Pipino, almost with a sneer. “Coerthas alone wore the burden of war for so long. We are not unused to such circumstances. That those with enough foresight to flee to Ishgard saved themselves is not the fault of such city. Does not the scared child retreat to the embrace of a protector?”

[Gair]

Gair lets out a rueful laugh at the exchange between Luna and Pipino, throwing his own ceruleum onto the fire. “Hah! A burden well-earned by murder of Dravanians, now you hide behind their scaled skirts…Nidhogg would be beside himself with fury.”

[Eligor]

Luz returns with three bowls of soup, and the hooded woman takes one, sitting across from Gair and popping off the bottom half of her mask, swifly grabbing a spoon and slirping away at the soup which seemed to consist of some sort of bird, carrots, and thick popotos.

Luz sat some distance away in a posture that was almost robotic, staring straight ahead rather than at the group–possibly in some awkward attempt to give them privacy while they eat.

[Luna]

The woman snaps to look at Gair. “We fought an everlasting war brought on by our forefathers, and performed admirably during it! Even now, during similar times have we not been one of the sole bastions of relative safety throughout the land!?”

[Eligor]

“Now now,” chimed in the woman still calmly eating her soup,“There is no need to get so upset about why one has survived, or how. It is enough that it has happened at all, no?”

[Pipino]

Pipino accepted her bowl of soup and keeps her gaze away from Luna, getting increasingly irritated as she the woman continues on.

“Precisely. What does it matter at this point, Luna? What is there to even be proud of when there is nothing else left to be superior to? Even with all Ishgard is now, we are all quite possibly doomed. Even if we eek out a pitiful existance, it is far from what I would call an accomplishment, or something to take pride in. So much waste. So much endless slaughter.”

[Eligor]

“Frankly, I'm shocked you three were not slaughtered on the spot, considering what you cost the leader of this place. But then again, I suppose I've absolutely no room to speak either in that regard.”

[Gair]

“All that's left is the slaughter,” Gair's mirth dies utterly, the laugh little more than a memory to the room. “The question is, where to now?”

[Eligor]

“Well that depends. Do you want to fight, or do you want to live?”

[Gair]

“Fight.” Gair answers on reflex.

[Pipino]

Pipino looks pointedly at the woman after eating a good amount of her soup. “Fighting is living out there. You either fight you die, or you become one of them. It is those three fates and those three fates alone. It was also not our choice to come here, and quite frankly, not our responsibility for whatever failure was made that brought us to this place, so I daresay slaughter would be uncalled for.” She returned to the solace of her soup, her polite way of eating giving way for her delight in eating something that tasted less like dry nothingness, and pure satiation of hunger.

[Eligor]

“Even if you were to learn that your appearance was the botched final hope to turn everything about? The salvation for everyone? Would you be able to remain calm if you learn you have lost all you had left, and in return the promised reward was a lie? Would you even care?”

The woman sips more soup and smiles.

“To give all for hope, and to be repaid with only despair. Are you so resolute you can deal with having your last chance shattered before your eyes?”

[Luna]

The woman sneers back at the one speaking, cutting short a surely rage-filled diatribe. “Brought upon your twisted luxuries and fineries while the world burns, without our own consent, does not endear me to believe a word you speak. There have been many and more who spoke of a salve to soothe the darkness and restore life to our star, and they have all perished. Now you speak as if we should feel belabored sorrow at this so-called chance that was removed outside of our control? Madness.”

[Eligor]

“Is that how it sounds? I was not asking you to feel guilt, but empathy. My apologies if even that is beyond you now.”

[Gair]

“I don't care about salvation, the only thing left is to fight and die,” Gair states rather plainly.

[Pipino]

Pipino sets her bowl down, daintily placing a hand over her mouth as she finished chewing and not starting until all was swallowed.

“And what does the path to hope look like, I wonder? That girl… she had no faith in us to be able to do anything. We are supposedly a mistake, poor replacements for the 'High Priest,' as you call him. Glad I would be if something I could do could change the course, but I am afraid I have not the ability to do all that much, even should I be willing. If I saw a path of hope, I would pursue it without fail. And… I would repay Novine for that sacrifice if I were able. I would owe her that much. As I have been told throughout my life, however, I have not the currency. I fear she simply placed a losing bet.”

[Eligor]

The woman finishes her soup, dropping her spoon into her bowl with a rattle.

“Luckily, that would be where…well, at least two of you are wrong.”

The woman pointedly turns her head towards Luna.

“Not even my eyes can see what secrets have been tucked away in you, but if I am correct–and let us face it, I am–all of you are quite the beautiful little keys. The road to hope, if you will.”

“I'd say you are actually better than the intent at this rate.”

[Luna]

“There are no secrets to be found within me. I am a broken woman, and a forlorn knight. But I will do whatever it takes to see my companions safe and sound. I care not what that brings upon myself.”

[Pipino]

“….How so?”

[Eligor]

“Before I get into that, what do you know about what caused the current state of the world? How was this horror unleashed?”

[Pipino]

“I cannot say I am all that knowledgeable about it. I only know that suddenly, there were a large number of individuals infected in Mor Dhona, and have heard theories that it relates in some way to the Crystal Tower. I cannot say how the Dark One came into power though.” She returned to her soup, not really in the mood to eat it, but knowing it would foolish to let it go to waste.

[Eligor]

“I see. Anyone else hear differently? I am quite intrigued.”

[Gair]

Gair stares into his soup after having done naught but stir it around and take only a few cursory sips from his spoon. Pensive and glazed over in thought. “The red mist, the son of a bitch that made that beast with my face,” is what he offers to the discussion. Done with it, he shoves the bowl to the side and regards Luna now. “You've a good fury about you, so, what's his name?”

[Luna]

Luna turns to Gair, an eyebrow raised. “Pardon? Who are you asking after, I see no man here save for you - if you can be called that anymore.”

[Eligor]

“Hmmm…well then…if you still want to know I can shed light on the situation. But you won’t like what you hear. It’s why I’m stalling. You three seem feral.”

[Pipino]

“And how long do you think it would take to erase these last years from our bodies and minds, I wonder?” Pipino responded honestly as she pushed her bowl forward. “How many bowls of soup do you wager it would take to restore us to some level of domestication? I honestly can think of no better time than now before we waste time becoming calm only to have another peaceful day snatched away and ruined with ill portents.”

[Eligor]

“There is value in taking time to think free of stress. But I suppose I see why you would not listen to such a detached statement in these times.”

[Gair]

“Nothing,” Gair shakes his head toward Luna, unfortunately he wasn't in a mood to bring his usual levity in this discussion. Looks like the dying world made one of us better, he muses internally as his gaze sweeps from Pipino back to the hooded woman. “We we're feral before the world ended, we just disguised it in flowery words and law. Speak, your words will harm us no more than what's already come to pass.”

[Luna]

The woman sneers but chooses not to say anything about what Gair says, instead turning back to the woman to listen.

[Eligor]

At this the woman smiles, putting the bottom half of her mask back on her face.

“That is where you are wrong. But I suppose I can start at the beginning for the sake of perhaps maximizing morale later.”

“Let us see…” The woman leaned on one arm and seemed to be lost in thought for an awkward amount of time before continuing,

“There was an ongoing conflict most did not know about. It concerned a red drug that had been placed in brilliant fashion all over the east and west, and to devastating effect. Unfortunately for some, the effects were more extreme than anticipated, and some without fortune died. Most did not yet know of the drug in truth, and so there was only one organized form of opposition. I take it you three already know of whom I speak in this regard.”

She took a deep breath before continuing, “But in case you do not, I'll spell it out. A man named Eligor, and the so-called high priest of this place–tried to stop the spread of this drug, and likely would have if things had gone to plan. They did not go to plan. You see, his critical weakness was discovered and exploited. All it took was one of his children being snatched away for him to discard all reason and walk willingly into a trap. It was not the first trap that had been designed for him, but it would prove to have been his last. You see, the man was exceptionally difficult to kill. If one could describe it, it was almost as if he was fine tuned to adapt to deadly situations. So to counteract this, a new approach was devised: He would not be killed, but he would be lead into a room where his consciousness–or to some, the soul–would be temporarily snatched from his corporeal form and trapped within a prepared vessel. And it worked. For all intents and purposes, Eligor had been rendered mentally dead. Victory was now complete.”

“So with that in mind, are you sure you do not want to guess how we got here? How this is related to this eighth hell the world has become?”

[Gair]

“Didn't know I was some high priest,” Gair adds unhelpfully to the discussion. A surprising amount of clarity coming from this haggard murder hobo. “Seems like both of them were exceptionally hard to kill…as I recall Eligor slaughtered him once before. Just that death didn't seem to stick.”

[Eligor]

“He did, but the circumstances were not quite the same.”

[Luna]

Luna's eyes light up. “That foul man is no more then? Blessed be Halone that there may be some light solace to this world. Were only his influence cut short so long ago rather than revived by a foolish little girl.”

[Pipino]

Pipino tensed when she had heard that name again, her eye closing as she shook her head and listened, finding it unbelievable that after all this time, that name would somehow be in the center of her suffering yet again. She folded her arms and leaned back in the chair, opening her eye to gaze at the ceiling.

“He told a story once. One with a moral, the moral being to be less afraid of him and more afraid of his enemies, one that all his knowledge meant nothing against.”

She paused a moment.

“Shortly after, he showed me something. A vision, perhaps. An experience… a presence that inhabited my mind for but a brief flash. It has never left me, that feeling, that unshakeable instant. He said it was an enemy he must defeat. Perhaps one in the same with the one that causes us trouble now?”

[Eligor]

The woman leaned back.

“Well I can report that it was not a bluff.”

“Turns out that dear old Eligor was hiding a secret all his own. He was not the only occupant in his soul. There was some aberrant presence hiding within his own like a shadow. The moment his mind was ripped free of his body, this creature was unleashed. That creature is what you all have come to think of as the Dark One. The origin of this horror.”

“I hardly need to tell you much more beyond that, save eliminating some poisonous ideas. This creature is not some mindless spawn thoughtlessly attacking at any and everything. It is quite intelligent, and capable of communication. What little it did share of its plans were…not pleasant, to say the least. What has passed so far was hardly the beginning of what is to come. Make no mistake, we have limited time to turn this situation about if at all. Which brings us to what was the original plan.”

She pointed at Gair, Pipino, and Luna in turn before speaking. “You see, the plan was to call back Eligor's mind. Due to a little secret, he cannot be dissolved into the lifestream completely. But if he could subdue this creature, presumably it could be done again. But instead of him, you three appeared. Undoing this corruption like waving a wand is no longer possible. But that you are here at all is proof of hope of the alternative. We can simply risk everything we have left on a frontal assault. Directly on the Crystal Tower.”

The woman leans forward now and leans into her tented fingers.

[Luna]

“A desperate offensive with naught but the three of us? Surely your veiled socialites would not pick up a blade or gun, they would rather imbibe wines and fornicate. Unless mayhap they are made of sterner material than I am anticipating.”

[Eligor]

“Suppose it was just the three of you. Would you still do it?”

[Gair]

“I would,” Gair answers. “But fodder will keep us fresh for the zenith of the tower. We need meat shields.”

[Luna]

“If it meant keeping everyone safe.” She speaks quickly as if not needing to think about it. “I am no fool - there must be sacrifice. Even if it cost me my life, if it saved others…” She pauses and speaks under her breath, “Lucatiel…”

[Pipino]

Pipino leaned forward again, the news battering her. Once upon a time it would have seeped deep within her skin, disturbed her, sent her into a fit of hysterics or anger. Hyterics and anger required passion, however, which she found in short supply, so she simply soaked it in, letting out little noises of annoyance or disapproval here and there at the more damning information.

“How cruel to be trapped in a fate wrought by a man who was too proud, too comfortable in his superiority that he would not even give me a straight answer about his plight when asked for it. How many opportunities did he have to set this right, squandering them all under his shroud of mystery.”

She eyed the other two, listening to their resolve.

“Why do you think the three of us would make even a dent in that thing's armor? Sure, I have become quite an adept Machinist now with some training, but what else are you planning?”

[Eligor]

“I think there is a chance for the same reason none of us have been killed here. There is a sliver of hope in our being alive.”

She pointed at Gair first before tapping her finger on the table loudly. “Your ability to resist the corruption is why you have not been turned into a mindless puppet already, what with that little collector's hobby you seem to have. The crystals lose their power once the host dies you see, but there are still residual threats left behind. It is a physical extension of the infection after all. And you carry them around like toys. Like jewelry. If we consider resistance to the change to be something of a muscle, you've been beefing it up constantly.”

[Gair]

“Were I not resistant, I could have been spared watching all this unfold,” Gair lifts his chin to the woman, ignoring the tapping of the table. In an attempt to put two and two together, the memories of the last three years slowly jog into the deadman's head. “If this dark one is just another spirit lurking in Eligor's form, then we've a chance. He wasn't some immutable god, even I've made him bleed.”

[Eligor]

“Then consider something: Was he holding back this creature when you drew blood?”

She then pointed to Pipino. “You on the other hand, your aether is similar to that from which the drug was made from. I believe he called it the hero's blood? All things considered, you are probably all but immune to the change. Speaking strictly from a pragmatic perspective, your blood is quite the commodity. If the world knew, you'd likely have been torn apart.”

[Luna]

Luna's right arm moves to the hilt of her blade as if ready to draw just at the mention of Pipino being torn apart, but quickly does she stop herself.

[Gair]

“Then the reverse is true,” Gair pieces the slow calculus of the coming fight together. “If his shadow can hinder him enough for a stupid boy playing at hero to wound him, we need only rouse the other side of the coin to hinder the shade. We ring the bell for sleeping beauty.”

[Eligor]

“Have you not been listening? The entire reason you three are here at all is because rousing him has failed. Wherever his mind has gone, it is of no help to us now.”

[Pipino]

Pipino nodded her understanding. “I…have been told as much about my blood before. I had wondered if it might afford me some protection, but I have not been able to confirm it as such. But… torn apart for it? Is it thought my blood could act some vaccine against this wave of infection?” she asked, a slight tone of hope daring to coat her words.

[Gair]

“I have been, you failed to bring him here,” Gair makes the distinction. “You said he ain't in the lifestream, so that means he's somewhere. And if this shade has the sense to establish domain, field troops and take his fight to a myriad of fronts. Then he might have the sense to put Eligor's essence under lock and key.”

[Eligor]

“As it happens, I know for a fact that the blood can act as a vaccine of sorts. But by itself, it will hardly do anything to reverse the change, only prevent it. And that is why instead of chasing shadows and wasting more resources trying to find a dead man, we instead go the more concrete route to victory.”

“We track down the other hero.”

[Pipino]

The Lalafell tilted her head at the woman, eyebrows raising at the information. She had not expected to learn that about herself and stared in discomfort. She sat up and leaned forward, folding her gloved hands and placing them before her on the table. The small patch of her forearms that were visible were peppered with injuries, the left some minor cuts, the right the warped flesh created by a burn.

“Where do you suspect they are? And even if we find them… what then?”

[Eligor]

“I know where they are. The Black Shroud.”

[Pipino]

“So say we make it to them successfully. What then?”

[Eligor]

“Bring them back to me, and I can synthesize the blood into something of a cure. Even better, an active antibody of sorts.”

“Luckily for you all, I happen to know for sure it will work.”

[Pipino]

“How do you intend to prove that? This is a large ask you make of us.”

[Eligor]

“Prove what?”

[Pipino]

“You know for sure it will work. How can I trust that? I have clawed my way to where I am now at great peril and I have no intention on just throwing away my efforts just because someone pulls me here and says I ought to. Eligor's name has been associated with naught but chaos in my life thus far, so pardon me for wanting to know the details before I throw my life away in an attempt to fix something he had failed in preventing.”

[Eligor]

“This is why speaking with the masses is so tiresome. You do not deny the truth of what I have said before yet now is when validity is called into question. Very well.”

“It was confirmed to me directly by the dark one. In a roundabout sense of course.”

[Gair]

“You cultists are just as obtuse as he, a disdain to actually explain,” Gair chimes in, seemingly in agreement with Pipino.

[Luna]

“Spare your puzzles and conceits, and dispense what informations we require. If you are so keen to ask us to put our lives on the line, the least you could do is speak plainly and without shade.” Luna finally speaks, having grown irritant.

[Eligor]

“I have dispensed the information you require. A way forward, where you had none. I have explained everything to you in full already, save what I already know you will not understand or what is not necessary.”

“It is not my fault if despite that you still do not understand. Perhaps ask questions rather than accuse me of having neglected to be forthcoming.”

[Pipino]

“Not denying the truth does not mean accepting and trusting in it fully by any means. To be told my blood could lead to a prevention of this infection and then to immediately risk that protection on information I am being to asked to blindly trust… I think you could entertain my suspicion, surely. I was an optimist once, and if there is any hope of it, I would not throw that small sliver away idly.” *She sighed and shifted her position again.*

“How was it confirmed to you?”

[Eligor]

“Through words. I did say directly.”

[Gair]

“I've other business in the shroud, if we're to hunt a hero and take his blood,” Gair comes to a stand from his chair. For once appearing actually motivated by something other than base needs to eat and defend ones self. “Could it reverse one who has been changed?”

[Eligor]

“Hunt–by your gods, are you even listening to a single word I utter?”

“First, we need this individual ALIVE. Very alive, and not dead. This is VITAL. Secondly, yes. The theory is that with another strain of heroes blood, I can create a cure.”

[Gair]

“We're hunting, are we not? Finding a prey, regardless of intent to kill it.”

[Eligor]

“I'm more surprised at the lack of apprehension of infiltrating the Black Shroud of all places.”

[Gair]

“A lack of care for self preservation is a hell of a thing.”

[Pipino]

“I am apprehensive. Which is why I would know if is worth the risk. It is the nearest to suicide I have been, and that is saying much, given the times.” She paused, drumming her fingers on her arm a moment. “Are they in a state to come willing? The hero?”

[Eligor]

“Dunno. Never met them myself, only their aether.”

[Gair]

“Whether or not they're willing is hardly a problem…only how to find them,” Gair nods once, his palms on the table as he leans forward some. “You know their aether, you're saying. Can we use that to find them?”

[Eligor]

“I have. They are somewhere in the Black Shroud.”

“Beyond that I cannot tell you much, due to the complicated nature of the area itself.”

[Pipino]

“How much of the area are we expected to cover to reach them? With the Aethernet down, it is not as if we can simply teleport near to them and leave just as easily.”

[Eligor]

“I expect THEM to cover as much as is needed. I'd expect you would simply, you know…not go.”

[Luna]

The knightess listens silently, allowing her companions to handle the questions. After a while does she speak, and it is with conviction. “If the key to salvation lies buried within the veins of some vaunted hero staked out in the Shroud, then to the Shroud I will go. I will raze it to the ground ere give them shelter if needs be. I will do what must be done. It does not appear that we have much other options as it is.”

[Pipino]

“…So they will go, and what am I doing then? Staying here?”

[Eligor]

“Eating soup I assume.”

[Pipino]

“Yes… I suppose I will have time to become less feral after all. As…as tempting as it is to want to help I… the risk is too great. Even I can see as much.” Pipino looked to the two of her copatriots, swallowing a lump in her throat, wholly uncomfortable with the idea of them going on this task alone while she partakes in various comforts. Her expression was apologetic and guilty. “Is there anything that I can do here to be of some use, however?”

[Luna]

Luna looks unmoved by the lack of assistance. “it is just as well that you would not be part of the tinder whilst I burn the forest to the ground.”

[Eligor]

“Great! Perhaps we can make a secret club when we are the guests no one speaks to. Maybe we can make a laboratory?”

[Luna]

The woman raises an eyebrow curiously but does not respond.

[Eligor]

“But I daresay once I share a juicy tidbit with you, you'll be so impassioned you'll leave anyway.”

[Pipino]

“Then share it, and stop toying with me so I can make a proper decision, or keep it to yourself if you find that the better judgment.”

[Eligor]

“I find it the better judgement, I just hoped you would have figured it out by now. You'd have pieced it together later eventually either way.”

She opens her arms

“I am the one who created the drug. I am the one who dislocated Eligor's soul.”

[Pipino]

Pipino sat up straight, eyebrows knitted in confusion as she gazed searchingly at Luz, clearly seeking some sort of logic for this woman to be here. “Why…if you started it then…. why!?” Her tone grew more cross, but with so few words to speak, the momentum did not exist yet for sounding more upset.

[Eligor]

“I'm needed. Novine saw the logic in that.”

She turned her head towards Gair and Luna.

“But will you?”

[Luna]

The knightess wastes no time in answering. “I care naught. What has happened has happened. I care to shield my girl from the ongoing horror and bring back a brighter world for her and more.”

[Eligor]

“So you are fine with her staying then?”

[Gair]

Gair just stares at the robed woman, eyes glazed over in thought as he pieces together the series of events. “This cure better work, for your sake.”

[Eligor]

The woman stands, but is quickly toppled by the sudden and extremely violent shaking of the building structure, followed quickly by Luz quickly standing up, her frown apparent beneath her headpiece.

“Impossible! Castle is dead!? But how!?”

There was no answer as the shaking grew more intense, Despite Luz herself finding no trouble keeping her footing as if attached to the floor, the residents were not nearly so stout, short of holding onto something steadily fastened to the floor or wall, people were flying from surface to surface as the place shook and roared from below: Something had made its way in, and although distant, screams were already beginning to resound throughout the building. The Horde had arrived, and seemingly in no small number.

“I must defend the gate,” Luz suddenly and swiftly uttered, turning towards the robed woman before waving her arm to the group. “The savior is weak from maintaining the gate. Follow the sinner, we have maintained two airships, and she knows the way! We will repel these carriers of darkness and secure your safe passage!”

Without waiting for the group to respond, Luz walked off past the cafeteria and out of view, the shaking finally beginning to subside a bit as her tall form faded from view, followed slowly by some residents that seemed to be carrying swords and daggers, the happy appearance they gave off earlier seeming almost a lie in the face of these enraged residents.

[Luna]

Luna draws her sword instinctively, her arm humming to life as aether flows from it into a shield. She finds herself surprised to see these cultists willing to fight. “Perhaps these clouded dreamers have some bite after all. What is this sinner she speaks of? Why can she not speak plainly!” she growls out, looking toward Pipino.

[Pipino]

Pipino hopped off her chair the moment the shaking began in earnest, the Lalafell forced down to a knee as she looked about in an alert way, her head compensating for the scope of her vision she lacked in her left eye. Eventually she was able to find her feet again as Liz spoke, the cultist terminology washing over her like oil against water. She drew her firearm, a much larger weapon than she had been using three years prior and held it in a two-handed ready position.

“You act as if I have ever been given answers! I know nothing about the their beliefs, teachings and doctrine, only that they are deeply bound in their dogma.” She gestured to the hooded and masked woman, the one responsible for the state of the world at present. “I daresay she fits the bill of a sinner judging from the chaos she has wrought by my judgment,” she intoned resentfully.

[Luna]

The woman sneers back down at Pipino. “You would work so willingly with this entire madman's farce and yet you knew so little? I should have known better all those years ago.” She speaks with cutting disdain and a barbed tongue. “If this woman is the sinner then follow her I shall. My fury is to be directed for the benefit of humanity, I care naught for the method.”

[Pipino]

“It must feel so grand to sling such arrows from atop your tower based on hindsight alone, and yet you would go with this woman knowing only what she has told us after admitting she caused this entire fate to happen? How blind, how fickle your trust and how quick you are to gild yourself with hypocrisy. You know nothing, Luna, and it is time for your self-righteous arrogance to be set aside for once.”

[Luna]

“My tower, Pipino, is built upon the ashes of a thousand-fold dead Eorzeans. With the express purpose to wrest salvation and bring it upon the world once more.” she snaps back. She steps closer to Pipino for a moment. “Perhaps next time you wish to awaken some otherworldly power and then aid them for some time you shall clean up your own mess, but for now it is up to myself and Gair. I will not apologize for my righteous conviction. I am not pleased to do as this woman says, but she has put forth a much superior plan to solving our crisis than you ever have. I will do as she asks, be it hunting down a cure or calling down Dalamud once more. I wouldst not hesitate if it meant saving Eorzea and those within it.” Despite her relatively calm tone, her eyes have gone wide and she is noticeably different, unhinged perhaps.

[Gair]

With no immediate threat in this very room, Gair doesn't bother to even draw his weapon for the moment. Whilst the argument goes on around him, he slaps a blackened steel helmet in his head and draws a deep hood over it. His gaze is less seen and more felt as it passes from his former friends onto the other robed woman among them. Being the grim voice of reason, he rumbles out from his hood. “Chances are were going to be fucking dead after setting foot in the Black Shroud, perhaps we can bitch and moan in hell rather than give this conniving cult further fuel to pitch us against one another.” There is considerable vitriol directed to the robed woman, as if she were the root of all sin at this moment. “Go on, airship. Before I change my mind and take you to my crew, they could do with a woman to break in. Helps morale.”

[Eligor]

The robed woman stood up shakily, holding onto the table for support.

“One sinner as requested exit is…” She looks around before pointing opposite of where Luz went, back towards the room the group emerged from. “….This way. Come come along now, if I’m getting torn apart, I’d rather prefer pirates to those things.”

Unlike Luz, this woman has a much less stable footing, even as the shaking had subsided. After a few failed attempts at walking straight, she fumbled to a wall that had a small collection of canes, and began using it to support her left side. How did she sneak up on Gair?

[Pipino]

Pipino shook her head in response to Luna, making a noise of annoyance that made it clear she had reached a point in her life where it wasn't worth arguing over matters for very long. Letting Gair's brusque suggestion win her over, the nimble Lalafell staggering here and there but managing to follow well enough after the woman warily without another word to Luna for now.

“I take it there is a change of plan about me staying behind with this new development,” she assumed of the sinner.

[Eligor]

“Guessed that all on your own did you? But it’s strange, this isn’t the first attack, but….Luz said Castle died. That just shouldn’t be possible.”

[Pipino]

“And who is Castle?”

[Eligor]

“We are inside of Castle right now. But her heart should be in seclusion right now precisely to prevent this situation.”

Right as the words left her mouth, there was another rumbling as the wall not far from where they were heading burst open, a large highlander man wearing a monk's garb appearing as the dust and debris cleared, a large shining crystal bulging from his shoulder. It seems there had been fighting on the other side of the wall, as clutched in the monks hand the were the now splintered bone fragments of one of the residents of the sanctuary, the previously pure white robe now dyed red with chunks of flesh, blood, and protruding bone.

[Gair]

“You'll wish for them to tear you apart,” With a flourish, Gair snatches one crook from his belt at the sight of the monk with a crystalline growth sticking out of his shoulder. “Paladin, shield her.” Crystals mean death, the air around him grows cold as a long jagged spike of pure ice forms in his grasp. Stepping up, he cocks that implement of death back like any javelin. Ready to loose it into flesh.

[Pipino]

Pipino had a myriad of questions she could have asked, and opened her mouth to ask the first before the wall came crashing open, the crystalline monk charging merciless in their direction. Rather than directly engage the man, Pipino looked over her shoulder and moved to keep up the pace. She reached down and fiddled with something on the Aetherotransformer, a robotic turret coming into being and hanging in the air behind her, instantly charging within an orb of crackling aether before it sent a volley of firepower at the Monk, mainly acting as a distraction more than anything.

“Shall we keep moving? I fear lingering will attract others.” Pipino kept following the sinner for now, ready and willing to continue on.

[Eligor]

“An excellent suggestion. Factual. But we need to get past him. If someone would be so kind to do the honors?”

[Gair]

With Pipino's fire, Gair hurtles his javelin down-range. Fully intent on detonating the projectile into an inumerable fragment of shards with an authoritative snap of his fingers should it land in flesh.

[Luna]

Clearly not even needing the man's prompting, Luna moves to be between the monk and the robed sinner, shield raised high. Her battle stance as practiced as it was years ago. She waits for her companions to act, mind fully set upon pure defense.

[Eligor]

The Monk seemed distracted by the fire from Pipino's weapon, seemingly caught up in the act of deflecting the onslaught with his arms before finally Gair's javelin burst through, hitting the monk in the arm and bursting through it as he tried to deflect it. Combined with Pipino's continued fire, the blows followed through and the monk was peppered all over. Now missing an arm, the monk pulled at the crook and threw it at Gair, dashing in a blink across the hall and in front of Luna, aiming to punch down at her head from above.

[Luna]

Luna puts her left foot down for stability, raising her aetheric shield to block the incoming strike. She pulls back her blade, preparing for a counter should she find the chance.

[Eligor]

The Monk pushed down on Luna's shield, but it seems that the attacks earlier had taken their toll. Although he puts up a lot of pressure, with his wounds and missing one arm he was hardly in any position to retaliate for now.

[Gair]

Plink! The crook smacks into Gair's helmet and goes end over end into the air above him, he tracks the movement and steps up onto the table to snatch it out of the air. Bearing this stick in an icepick grip, he jumps off toward the Monk with the intent to ram the wood into it's flesh again and again on his descent. An unorthodox shiv, for certain, but a great deal more brutal.

[Luna]

Bearing the weight of the crippled strike, she drives her blade forward with considerable force.

[Eligor]

The force of the blows both struck true, and despite his powerful stature, the combined strength of the strikes as well as Gair's weight toppled him, forcing the man to fall on the floor squirting blood as Gair continued to stab him.

Not one to miss a beat apparently, the robed woman seems to have gotten over her previous bout of weakness, tucking the cane she was using to support herself earlier and tucking it underneath her arms before running off down the hall and past the wall leading to the outside. If one were to look, they would see that they were not exactly over solid ground; the hole showed a vast expanse of sky beyond, not a battlezone. They were above the sea of clouds.

[Gair]

Before Gair joins the party's escape, he grasps the large shoulder-crystal of the monk and yanks at it to snap a fist-sized portion off of it with little regard for their former humanity. He tucks his prize away in his pocket and trails close behind.

[Luna]

Luna disengages, ripping her blade out of the man and following suit with the other two. She keeps her blade drawn, blood running down and dripping into a sort of breadcrumb trail.

[Pipino]

Pipino's turret vanished with a mechanical whirr, the Lalafell unable to hide a little grin that came to her features seeing the enemy fall, some wave of nostalgia washing over her as she tore after the robed woman swiftly. She felt something drop in her stomach upon realizing their location as they ran, that dizzying height visible from the opening enough to trigger that instinctual distaste for heights she constantly had to battle in Ishgard.

“How much farther to the airships?”

[Eligor]

“We have to move up–”

Almost like some dark comedy, right around the corner were cultists fighting the horde. Some defeated cultists turning even as the battle continued on, and the length of the long hallway leading to a set of stairs, with light spilling down from what was presumably the exit. Clearly not interested in helping the people fighting, the robed woman jumped and ducked through the worsening hellscape, heading straight for the stairs without even so much as slowing down.

[Pipino]

Seeing that the situation was worsening and would likely worsen before Luna and Gair could make it through, Pipino took an opportunity to fire a timed explosive into the fray, aiming for the center of the turned horde. Making a quick adjustment to her firearm that caused it to steam, the air around her appearing liquid as she fired single shots into group, again attempting to aim just for the members of the horde as much as she could with precise and deadly aim. After a few moments, the projectile she had first fired exploded, and Pipino attempted to take advantage of the confusion her explosion might make to make her way through any opening she could find in pursuit of the sinner, intent on not getting bogged down in a fight here.

[Eligor]

Pipino's attempt paid off. With her bomb going off at the right spot and a the right time, she produced a smokescreen thick enough for the group to run through. With her volley of shots, she cleared out just enough of the horde to make more or less a straight shot through the stairs.

[Pipino]

Pipino did not hesitate to spring right back into her stride, darting through the opening and continuing her pursuit of the woman up the stairs.

[Luna]

Luna followed through the violence, barely even slowing as the time bomb went off. She put her shield in front of her, intending to charge right through any bodies as she too moves to follow the mysterious robed woman.

[Gair]

Gair shuffles in behind and holds up the rear, more of a fast-walk that the man makes through the chaos.

[Eligor]

Above the stairs were the great outdoors. Bright skies, fluffy clouds…and a horde of enemies fighting on a large field that was not unlike several football fields smashed into one. The robed woman was already most of the way towards a very Garlean looking aircraft, nimbly dodging out of the way of the horde that saw and charged at her like she were waving away flies.
If one were to turn about however, they would see that the so called Sanctuary was not just a massive island in the sea of clouds, the building itself seemed to be made from scrapped airships and ruins themselves. The entirety of the structure came off as segmented and still in development despite the posh innards below. This Sanctuary was now on fire, and that fire seemed to be quickly spreading to the field.

[Luna]

The knightess continues to follow through the fire and the flames, aether shield held in front of herself intent on knocking away any obstructions. *If you desire our cooperation, it would be more beneficial to stay close to us…*

[Pipino]

Pipino fell in behind Luna, finding herself a bit ill equipped to be a front-lines fighter. She adjusted her speed and allowed the knightess to lead the charge, keeping her eye on their right flank as much as possible as her vision inhibited her left.

[Gair]

Gair was right up there with the charge, never one to let Luna take the full brunt of anything. Dead man inside or no, some of that old pride only showing briefly. Full-bore sprinting for that airship, “Ain't a day I don't regret just not stealing an airship when Ul'dah fell.”

[Luna]

“You did not strike me a thief, Gair. Not then. Not even now, I feel. You were many things - An oaf, a dullard, a clod. But one who steals, I can not imagine.” she responds, a small feeling of nostalgia in her words.

[Eligor]

There was little to no direct opposition on the way into the airship, where the group would have found the robed woman fussing with the controls.

“Ugh….I dont suppose one of you knows how to use one of these things?”

[Pipino]

Pipino rushed into the airship, breath coming quickly and heart-hammering from a mix of the adrenaline and effort.

“I cannot say I do. Not quite the brand of machine I deal with,” she lamented.

[Gair]

Gair rumbles our a rueful laugh as he follows way into the airship and takes a cursory scan around the general deck. “Thief, murderer, tyrant, traitor, fratricide, take your pick.” At the query for airship operator, he perks up. “I've been shown how to fly the tiny ones forever ago, skimmers, cutters? Just don't be mad if we all crash and die.”

[Luna]

Luna follows on to the airship as well, looking around. “I am sure you are a regular Sir Garlond.” she muses, turning back towards the carnage just to be safe. Let down naught your guard lest the enemy capitalize…

[Pipino]

“Well, it seems our choices are crash and die, stay here and die, successfully arrive to our next destination and die… I would say I am at least more comfortable with the hands to which I would be dying letting you have a crack at it,” she admitted rather morbidly.

[Gair]

“Well you better hold the fuck on 'an get ready for high winds,” Gair begins his search for the controls, focusing on anything that looks rudder-like toward the aft of the ship. I wonder if airship operators have special words for up and down, like port and star. Whether it's wise or not to do so, he starts flipping switches on a panel with the rudder. The craft's engine making some sort of noise and the wings actuate to attention, he hasn't killed them, yet.

[Eligor]

With all of his fumbling, the airship luckily spronked to life. There seemed to have been a bit of an autopilot protocol in place as the airship rose from the ground on its own and a monitor beeped to life above the dashboard, showing the situation behind the ship.
Things have gotten far worse in a short amount of time, and the fire had spread even further. Perhaps most strikingly, Luz had reappeared from another entrance some ways away, her previously pristine white garb now torn and dyed over with gore. Her head piece in particular was now ripped away to reveal a white-haired and fluffy head of sheep-like hair, and scant traces of bronze skin. She was being swarmed by the horde to the point of quickly being completely obscured, but stilled seemed to be moving rather easily despite this invasion of her personal being. With a final burst that was almost like a signal, the airship was pushed away from the island proper, showing that it was quite literally being swarmed by a horde of thousands from below like an ant ladder and a neighboring island. The clump that had covered Luz was now slowly coming to a white glow. If Gair was going to show off his sexy piloting skills, now was the time.

Motherfuckin' Airship

[Gair]

Gair stares dully into the monitor, as if he hasn't seen Magitek in an age. *Right…fucking Allags, Triclops, Garlond.* Far more surefooted on a moving vessel than solid ground, he slams a lever forward and yanks back the rudder to bring the airship into a sharp ascent. Easily slipping into his role as helmsman and 'captain'. “IF WE GOT GUNS, BRING 'EM TO PORT! IF NOT, SIT YOUR ASS DOWN!” With a more birds-eye view of the situation, the island, people-ant-bridges, he holds up his thumb and screws an eye shut. Clearly making some sort of trajectory calculation before he rushes back to the rudder to enact whatever madness he had in mind…

Up, then down all of a sudden! The uninitiated to nautical or aerial travel may lose their lunch as he brings the vessel down at a sharp angle toward the island. Growing larger and larger from their point of view with the rushing wind that howls across the deck, only for it to suddenly turn into the worst teacup ride imagineable. A sharp rip of the rudder sends the vessel into a downward spiral. With Gair jamming his crook in there to secure it for the ride down, he does the unthinkable and steps away from the controls to make for the port side of the ship.

Unhinged and clearly fucking mad, red steam begins to waft off of Gair's body. He slams his palms together and the sound reverberates like a gunshot, his hands wreathed in flame and ready for a bombing run. He cackles maniacally and begins to just hurtle fistful after fistful of explosive fire down onto the island. The corkscrew maneuver sending them skirting the edge and chasing that ant ladder all the way down toward Abalathia's spine below. Raining hellfire on every rung as the ship just spirals and circles it like a fiery tornado.

[Luna]

Thankfully Luna thinks to grab on to the rails of the airship. Her quick choice proves to be a blessing immediately as the airship starts doing comical anime shit. Her face turns white as a sheet. Ships are torturous enough, but to make it into such a terror-filled event…. She watches the man abandon his post after jamming a stick into the controls basically. Were she not already terrified, she would look aghast.

[Eligor]

As Gair fires down onto the ladder, the glow from the lump on Luz glows ever brighter, the fire from Gair's onslaught quickly engulfing the group as they spiralled down. As they continued however, they would have noticed that there was not simply fire following the ship on their descent: The tower of flesh was being turned into solid gold; the island above shown in the rear monitor also showing that the sanctuary was now a solid gold mass and quickly gaining on the descending airship. With a final burst of energy from within the golden structure, the airship is sent careening through the clouds and into the darkness below.

[Pipino]

Pipino held on for dear life as she feels the airship move mercilessly through the space, the Lalafell never fond of heights on even the best days, but knowing this erratically moving craft was the only thing keeping her from realizing every fear of heights she had ever had, it did nothing for her nerves. She let out a panicked cry and wrenched her eyes shut as the craft lurched about, taking the occasional peek to witness the golden conflagration before squeezing them shut again, the physics of their craft reaching her body had never been subjected to, the sensations difficult to fathom.

She looks over to Gair with slight panic in her eyes. “I take everything I said about feeling more comfortable with death at your hands back! If you could kindly place us into a less dangerous course, I for one would be glad of it!”

[Gair]

Mid-careen, Gair makes a dive for the rudder to retrieve his crook and stop the chaotic corkscrewing of the airship. All in all, he was rather spent for the moment from that barrage of fire. Half of his coat is burned away and singed from that show of thaumaturgy. Near-death being having returned some of the vigor and energy to his haggard features, he slumps against the wall. The sight at Pipino's panic brings him some relief, nostalgic even. A ghost of a smile creeps up his features as he utters. “Well, that's the most alive I've felt in years…” He trails off. “And I guess that body count is all mine, I'll round it down to, say, a hundred thousand.”

[Luna]

“Perhaps you ought to have been running the books for Luna's tavern if you have such a memory for large sums and figures,” she quipped back. “It is a count I had lost long ago.”

[Eligor]

“How about instead of either,” the robed woman piped up, “you DONT turn us towards death that is assured in favor of the death that is instead very likely. Or is it too much to ask that we proceed with purpose?”

[Luna]

The knightess remains quiet, electing to believe in her old friend that his abilities would hold out rather than dare open her mouth and risk the sick getting the better of her.

[Gair]

“See… were that truly assured death, we'd be dead,” Gair is careful to note as he tends to the rudder. His gaze flitting to the mid-afternoon sky. “Passed midday, so…” He quickly reasons out which direction south is and orients the airship with the sun on their right.

[Pipino]

Pipino took the opportunity to relax a bit at last, taking a moment to let go of the support she had been gripping to begin a new pacing regimen in the area behind the controls, working out her anxiety in a more physical way as she wrung her hands. “Yes, proceeding with purpose would indeed be the best, as would proceeding with some kind of plan in place.” She looked to the hooded woman as she continued her rounds. “Have you any other insight as to the situation we will be walking into? Otherwise this mission is as good as blind for as much as I know of it.”

[Eligor]

“Cute. Well any other burning questions while we are at it? I’m a living fount of knowledge!”

[Pipino]

“I did just ask one and it was not meant to be cute or rhetorical. Perhaps we ought to start there.”

“I have more, of course, but information leading to us not dying would take priority, I would imagine.”

[Eligor]

The woman leans forward, shaking her head.

“Not much more than what I assume would be common knowledge by now really.”

She sighs

“The Black Shroud was hit first, and whatever corruption spread could be argued to have its true foothold there. If people did not assume that life did not truly run through the wood before, they know it to be true now. The wood has taken on a more sinister form of life.”

“It ensnares and attacks those along with the animals and horde within.”

“And is just as capable of turning one as the horde.”

[Gair]

“A true foothold…and is it possible some of the original corrupted may have lingered at this epicenter?”

[Eligor]

“No clue. But there has been a theory that there might be a seat of resistance within the Shroud. It is the only logical conclusion to make really.”

“After all, why in the world would the Shroud have not expanded far more quickly? Over these years, it has clearly shown the ability to do so, and if it can in theory subsume life through the vegetation, would that not have been the metaphorical end of the game?”

“And yet it has spread ever so slowly. Lends some hope that our hero might be a part of it no?”

[Pipino]

“It does, I suppose but… Well, if you can feel this Hero's aether so readily, could you not similarly feel aether that is not so corrupted and perhaps lead us to a safer starting point to our journey? That there are more that have not yet been turned?”

[Eligor]

“On the contrary. I've only felt the hero there. I'm not omnipotent.”

[Gair]

“Let's hope he's not the one keeping it all from spreading, cause we're takin' them from there one way or another for that cure,” After a pause. “And I'll be stayin' to find a Miqo'te in a haystack.”

[Eligor]

“Miqo–what are going on about now?”

[Pipino]

“Well, if they turn, and we are successful, we could just cure them so I am less concerned about that but…” She turns back to the robed woman. “You may not be omnipotent, yet you have done some seemingly extraordinary things, such as creating this mess in the first place. I cannot say you have earned my trust yet. I am only coming because it seems like we have very little hope left at this point and this is the only option I have seen.” She paused and folded her arms, looking to her. “Why did you feel the need to go and…do whatever it is you even did to Eligor. I cannot say I follow exactly what happened. You seem quite proud about it.”

[Eligor]

“Proud of what? Victory?”

[Pipino]

“And what selfish victory did you win?”

[Pipino]

“I hardly think what we are living right now is much to be triumphant about.”

[Eligor]

“Oh, so you are saying I was supposed to know a man was hiding a world devouring horror inside of his body? Or that I should not have wanted to fight a man in the first place who stole my work from me?”

“Go back to cursing him, that sounded far more pleasant to my ears.”

[Pipino]

Pipino sighed and resumed her pacing. “Well, if you did not know, at least it is more palatable. I still bear the man no love, you can be assured of that. But…why even start this work in the first place? What were you hoping to do with that awful drug?”

[Eligor]

“Have you ever tried explaining to a chocobo where it's greens come from? The concept applies here.”

[Pipino]

“Such a fount of knowledge. Too bad this fount seems to be broken. I ask a question, I receive a non-answer.”

[Eligor]

“Because the container is faulty.”

“Besides, these questions are not relevant to our task at hand. It is to satisfy your petty inner judgement. What interest would I have in that? Were you not just spouting how little you trust my word beyond circumstance?”

[Pipino]

“I would say most people that meet each other for the first time do not trust one another. They talk and make connections and value judgments and then trust sometimes can blossom as a result. I was attempting to ask the big questions so that I could try and hasten that process and at least feel as if I am participating in something laudable and not just being placed into some trap.”

“But very well, suppose it does not matter. Do you know what strength this Hero possesses that may aid us?”

[Eligor]

“Fair enough, I'll make the attempt in the bare minimum then.”

“The problem with life as we know it today is that it is not strictly life. And I do not mean that in the sense of just simply today either, but that this perspective easily applies to what existence was like for us oh…three years or more ago as well. We do not so much exist as we do…how do I put it in a manner a chocobo might understand? We are seeds.”

“Eligor knew this even longer than I, and he did what I considered nothing. Our little conflict was a discussion of sorts. A clashing of wills and perspectives. A difference of solution to the same problem. Existence is was my goal, and the drug as you so crassly put it, was my method by which I might water the seeds and prune the weeds. Pure genius. And as it turns out, I was right! Even today, those with the potential to endure this mixture remain, while the rest have either joined the horde or died. No need to thank me.”

The woman nods towards Gair.

“He might even be pleased to know that his little revenant was just as prone to suicidal nonsense as his originator, but I suspect that is more due to my flaws than his. I had yet to work out the kinks in the separation process you see.”

“As for the hero….I've NEVER met them. I cannot stress this enough. I used their aether as the basis for my mixture so I know their potential sure, but…it was different from the others. Even the other heroes if I am to be truthful. Their blood was mixed with what I suspected to be a portion of the lesser moon. But to a degree that is such I might even dare to call it a complete fusion. It was miraculous! A treasure!”

[Pipino]

Pipino looked to Gair and raises her eyebrows. “It seems that I was not the only who was not fully communicating all of what I was experiencing in my experiences with Eligor. I hardly understand what she is referring to in regards to you.” She stopped a moment and tapped her fingertips against her arm, processing all that was said. “And why would I thank you for something you did not know would come to be? It is not as if you knew this all would happen, as you stated yourself, so for what grand trial were you preparing those who ingest it and manage to endure it?”

[Eligor]

“The preparation was admittedly for a trial much worse.”

“But also far more voluntary in a sense.”

“I'm just saying that without me, we might be in this situation anyway eventually, but without me we certainly would have far less options than we do now. But yes yes hold your gratitude. I'm not blind to the idea that as an exchange, all of you must have faced some personal nightmare. Just keep in mind that I was not somehow magically exempt.”

[Pipino]

“If only knowing those around you have suffered as well could provide some kind of balm, but alas, it does absolutely nothing.” She took a moment to have a seat on the floor, leaning up against one of the walls of the craft. “Eligor's cult - I never was fully informed as to their purpose, but clearly they were prepared and ready for something. What have they to do with all of this?”

[Luna]

Luna just listens, half filled with fury to hear about Eligor and his cult in detail, half filled with a churning stomach. Her expression conceals her feelings, though her pallor does not.

[Eligor]

“I was brought there to be punished after my encounter with the dark one actually, so its not like I have some clear idea of exactly what the Sanctuary's purpose was. In fact, I was only vaguely aware that it existed during our battles. Even more to the point, they could not actually fight back then either. Far as I know, those that you saw are the ones that are left. The voluntary guardians of something called the gate. I've no idea what that is of course, but I can guess. Then again, so could we all.”

[Gair]

“We we're too busy quibbling over who was having stew with whom, as I recall,” Gair rumbles out and passes his gaze over Pipino. Only finally speaking when the sinner and Pipino both address him passingly. “I've a skeleton worth of bones to pick with you, but you're the only chance my niece has. We manage that cure, and I'll bury the axe for good.”

[Eligor]

“Sense at the end of the world. More miracles.”

[Pipino]

She regarded Gair's point with a conciliatory bob of her head, willing to take some of the blame. “If we manage the cure I daresay it will not be worth holding any of my lingering grudges.” She eyed the hooded woman. “Do we get to know your name at the end of the world? Perhaps see your face? I know, not practical, but I have never enjoyed dealing with masked individuals should I be able to help it.”

[Eligor]

The woman laughed a bittter, hateful laugh.

“Names at the end of the world? People shed names like skins girl. I've forgotten mine long ago. I suppose if I must have one to suit your needs, Sinner will do. It's been working quite well these past few years. As for my mask…”

She fingers the rim of her mask, chuckling a bit.

“That is more for the benefit of others than myself. Especially you girl, if I dare say so myself. Do not forget that despite everything you have been through, I have seen it's source. Metaphorically, I have been to the abyss you see. One does not return without paying the price.”

[Pipino]

“Then I suppose that will have to do. ” She said the words with a sigh and rested her head heavily against the wall, closing her eyes. “When you had your encounter with the Dark One, what did you learn of it?”

[Eligor]

“So you want the story, is that it?”

“I suppose if the pilot can find the time to nearly kill us all for his vanity I can regale you all with my encounter.”

[Pipino]

“I would. Through it all, I have only heard the results of the encounter and never the origin.”

[Eligor]

“Very well then.”

“It was evening when I decided I succeeded at my greatest triumph.”

“I told you that the hero was a particularly special case yes? Somehow, she had interacted with a fragment of Dalamud and even managed to fuse with the aether within. Miraculous I called it. But she was not the only one. There was another you see, and I found her first. A little hyuran child, whom had been…how to put it…she had not fused with the lesser moon's aether, no…she had somehow been consumed by it. Like aether sickness if it were an infection. It robbed her of her five senses and left her with severe burns–likely from being present at the fragment's uh…impact.”

“I was fascinated by this child, and through her, decided to test a number of experiments. Interestingly, her encounter with the lesser moon made her body quite malleable, and so I tried to make the ultimate being. I forcefully fused man and beast with the girl's flesh, imbuing her with great power. Yes…great power indeed. She was my crowning achievement. My proudest source of study….Until that man came along and tore my lab to pieces, and interrupted my final tests. To make matters worse, he stole her, and had the nerve to keep her as a pet, claiming her as a daughter. It was the greatest insult, and one which I do not expect you to fully appreciate.”

“But that is only important in the sense that I finally found her and took her. He hid her well, but that unmistakable mark of the lesser moon is quite distinct you see, especially in a living body. When he came to take her, confident as he usually was, I had my own trap prepared for him.”

“Again I do not expect you three to appreciate the true beauty of what I crafted, so let us just call it the boomy boomy soul sucky machine. I ripped his soul free of his flesh and that was that. Victory.”

“Only his flesh did not stay inert as it was meant to.” The woman leans forward now, her voice almost becoming a raspy growl, “No, he started to fly. My first thought was that I had somehow failed. He had somehow anticipated my move, but no…no, it was far worse than that. I do not quite know how exactly to explain just what occurred here. It is not that it defies explanation or something so mundane as that, but simply that it defies belief.”

“My facility was under water you see. Deep underneath the waves, and far from civilization. I could not risk having the alliance send another fool my way.”

“But when the dark one appeared…” The Sinner went silent, as if getting lost in the moment all over again, “I could see the sky. The ceiling, the water–they were all swept aside as if one were breathing. I do not know how to explain this form of fear to you because it was not something that was felt. It was not this blinding terror or a need to flee. It was an understanding that it did not matter. Like looking into the emptiness of the night sky and trying to comprehend the vastness of the blackness that was there.”

“It immediately tried to turn us. But due to the heroes blood, something got in the way. Something just barely stopped that thing from creeping into us.” She clutched the sides of her head now, rocking back and forth. “He thought my experiment was the source of the blood. Like I said, the mark the lesser moon leaves on aether is very distinct, you see. He popped her as easily as one might squeeze a rotten fruit. It was only after my prize experiment was burst into a mess everywhere that it turned to me. Eligor's eyes used to do this thing that made them appear like angry little candles, and I'm not sure if you've seen it. But this thing turned that trait into something like staring at wisps trapped in a cage. White, and without life.”

She took a deep breath before continuing.

“It spoke to me.” She reared her head back now as if trying to fight the memory, clearly bothered despite her earlier sarcasm. “You've brought about the end, but it was unwillingly. You are my greatest acolyte; change will come to this world. Glorious and prosperous will be my rule. But the potential of the new can only be brought forth from the blood and bones of the old. Your failed world must become the soil for what is to come. Sparing you to see it will be my mercy.”

She began shaking her head wildly before calming down, taking several deep breaths. “Annnd then I woke up in La Noscea. I tried to warn the leadership there of what was to come but until things started to get bad….well, naturally no one believed.”

She shrugged.

“Satisfied?”

[Pipino]

Pipino nodded silently, having eventually watched the woman's story with rapt attention, fixation. Her whole body seemed like it was waiting for some extremely specific piece of information that never seemed to come.

“I…yes. That will do,” she said simply at first with a little clearing of her throat as she digested the details. “The fact he kept it hidden for so long… when something might have been done about it. When you might have been warned… It infuriates me even still.”

“Does it still speak to you?” she asked quietly and calmly.

[Eligor]

“What a funny question.”

“But no would be the fast answer.”

She shifted in her seat. It seems she left out some chunks in her story, but did not seem keen on actually divulging those details for whatever reason.

[Pipino]

“You do realize that makes me wish to know the slow answer, yes?”

[Eligor]

“Then I'd have to direct the same question towards you wouldn't I?”

She chuckles and turns towards the room. “None of you hear the call?”

[Luna]

Luna finally finds the vigor to speak, if briefly. “I hear no 'call', Sinner, save for the triumphant heralding of Halone.” Quickly does she clasp her hand over her mouth once finished.

[Eligor]

“And are you sure that this so called heralding is not the Dark One disguising itself?”

“Consider those that are turned? Are they not still the people they were before, but fundamentally turned? Loyal to this alien thing that we do not understand? What is it about the corruption that drives everyone, even lovers and family, to rip one another to shreds without so much as a thought?”

[Luna]

She swallows her sickness for a moment, glaring at the woman. “Those who are turned are lost. Halone would not corrupt suchly. Anyone who is turned is a threat to those under my ward. They will be cleansed in holy light.” She quickly re-clasps her hand.

[Pipino]

Pipino watched the exchange carefully and then waved a dismissive hand. “Well, I suppose we shall skip the slow answer. I am afraid to hear the answer lest it be the one that has Luna cleanse the one person who knows how to fix things in holy light.”

[Luna]

A quick release of the hand-seal. “If this 'hero' is the key to salvation, I shall hold back the divine judgment upon them.”

[Eligor]

“Speaking of, how close are we? I'd hate to learn we are there by being swatted out of the sky.”

[Gair]

Gair looks up from the rudder, having gone into something of a sailing trance himself. Gently making adjustments here and there to right their course for the Black Shroud. “Luna,” he starts, staring right at her. “You will not touch a single hair on A'thasri's head if we find her corrupted form. If she perishes at your hand before we can attempt a cure, you have my word that I would do everything in my power to slaughter the three of you, then the hero, then take this airship to Ishgard. I will burn and rape every last soul in your city, do you understand?”

[Luna]

The woman locks eyes with Gair coldly. “I will not allow these corrupted souls to harm those of us yet unturned. Rest assured if A'Thasri has been blighted, her pain shall be ended swiftly. I will protect the realm. At any cost.”

[Gair]

A bit of a hard negotiator now, Gair claps the rudder and bites back. “Then you can walk to the shroud, paladin. I can arrange a *very* swift descent over the port side.” With a lock of the throttle, he keeps the ship on a more or less an autonomous flight path forward as he steps away from the controls. “They're all dead Luna, except for her. You wont rob me of this chance.”

[Eligor]

“Out of all the souls in the realm Novine has to call these three bumbling lump-heads.”

“Instead of arguing, I'll instead give facts. Mmk?”

“This corruption is called such not because that is what it IS but instead because of what it means for us who have not yet experienced it. Now I know that anything I say will just fly through those empty heads so instead I'll put it this way. The people that have been turned are not truly monsters, they have been improved. Even today the feats that were pulled proved they are evolving. Would you think a society of separate individuals capable of such before? No? Of course you would not. This CURE is not so much reverting them to what they were as it is disconnecting them from the dark one, and ridding them of troublesome loyalty whilst retaining their very useful improvements. I do believe you've a bloody necklace of the proof.”

“Secondly, if any of the Twelve gave the slightest of damns they would have come down already and smited the dark one from the first. They have not. They do not care, or they do not exist. Pick one, I do not care–but do not disturb the peace of the already insane driver before we get to our damned destination!”

“And lastly, the realm is not protected. It has failed. It is gone. That you would call ONE city the realm is pitiful. Lets focus on things that matter. Like not dying, and not arguing with each other over whom is right, because time will prove the only one whom is right is ME.”

[Luna]

Luna turns to the robed woman, frowning. “I do not remember asking for your foolish nonsense. We are dispatching to cultivate the cure to the sickness gripping the realm - Ishgard alone or no. I will perform that which is needed, but that does not mean I will entertain all of your shade-bent fantasies. Save your mad talk - it falls upon unwilling ears.” SHe speaks, disdain dripping. After a moment, she adds, “I can not speak for them.”

[Eligor]

“Very well, eject her from the ship. Her stupidity will kill us all.”

[Gair]

“Paladin, I demand you stay your blade from only one, give me your word.” Gair's hands rest on his belt now, thumbing a crook rather pointedly. “What'll it be, old friend? Are we to kill one another here?”

[Luna]

Her eyes dart back to Gair, but she takes a moment of thought. “Very well. I will leave her to you should we encounter her.”

[Eligor]

The Sinner claps

“So, about that destination…”

As if scripted, the entire ship is suddenly smashed by a sudden onslaught of turbulence. Only it was clearly cannon fire, and from the ship's port just out of view thanks to a certain someone NOT manning the pilot's seat.

The Sinner falls over onto the floor in messy fashion and in an apparent tantrum just decides to outright stay there, facedown on the floor as the ship continues to get shot at.

[Gair]

With the sudden rumbling of the ship, Gair rushes back for the pilot's seat to assess the damage and get eyes on the source of the fire. “Son of a…bitch!”

[Luna]

The knightess stumbles against the wall, bracing herself against it and re-clutching her mouth.

[Pipino]

Pipino finds her body jolted to the side from her sitting position, the Lalafell laying prone for the time being and deciding to stay on the floor until the ship's motion calmed. “Is the ship still flightworthy, Gair!?”

[Eligor]

Still firing at the ship was an aurora class Garlean airship, but with what appeared to be some strange new upgrades. It was sleeker and darker than the older models, and while it still had the main cannon trained on the party's ship, it seemed intent not on destroying them, but grounding them with a series of what appeared to be ceruleum based guns and what appeared to be a laser that was currently still charging.

The damage to the party ship for the moment was minimal as nothing critical had been hit, but one of the wings responsible for more precise movement had already been hit and the enemy ship appeared to be aiming for the engines.

[Gair]

“Hey, Sinner, did this dumb cult ever put guns on this fucking thing?!” Gair barks over the gunfire.

[Eligor]

“What part of my being a prisoner was unclear? Did you think I received tours and battle plans? But I'm going to guess no all things considered.”

She crawled up a bit, coughing and still very clearly upset

[Gair]

“They're tryin' to ground us, the bastards!” Gair barks out, his gaze flitting to Pipino to give her the status report. “They got the drop on us so the slip ain't exactly possible! If this thing has an anchor or tether for landin', we might be able to board.” He laments aloud, clearly trying to bob and weave with the main engine of their vessel in an attempt to get into any potential blindspots of their assailant's firing line to draw closer.

[Pipino]

“Boarding!? Are you joking? How does one even attempt to board such a ship? Surely we are traveling at a high enough speed that the wind alone would knock us to the ground below!” Pipino has become stricken with a little hysterical moment of fear, that fear of heights kicking in at full force.

[Eligor]

There did not seem to be a way to avoid the shots, but all the same it seems the pilot of the enemy ship was feeling whatever adrenaline high Gair was currently experiencing, as it quickly closed the distance as if in response only turning sharply before impact with the assistance of rockets jutting out of the side. Anchors shot and pierced into the side of the airship now, tethering both ships together.

[Gair]

Perfect, Gair thought as the hull of his vessel was perforated by anchors. “They hooked us, we can either submit 'an chat with them on the ground. Or we can make them regret anchorin' to us and ride a gunship into the Shroud in style, what are you feelin'?!”

[Eligor]

“Whichever route does not include dying.”

“How is this even a question!?”

[Pipino]

“I agree! I do not much fancy the idea of trying to take control of that ship while we both are still in the air, but whatever we are doing, I suppose we ought to do it sooner than later! Not dying is still my priority!”

[Gair]

“Game of chicken it is, we ride deep into the Shroud and dare these fuckers to keep tryin' to keep connected at the hip,” Gair tells the group the course of action, far more moderate than a daring boarding and slaughter of the enemy crew he had in mind. I really wanted that gunship. He fiddles with a few of the switches on the panel, some speakers crackling to life as he speaks into some sort of receptacle. “Testing- testing.” His voice rings out on nearby speakers, with a few twists of the knobs his voice can be heard transmitted outside now. “Testing! Hello! YOU FUCKERS IN THE GUNSHIP, PISS OFF OR I'LL CLIMB OVER THOSE ANCHORS AND BEAT YOU TO DEATH WITH EM.”

[Eligor]

There is silence at first, but after a time there is a sudden pull from the airship as the thrusters suddenly go into overdrive, and the radios within the airship crackle to life over an open channel with the voice of a gruff and wild man shrieking through.
“You can barely fuckin' fly you globswathin' pus riddled bitch! Why don't you get yer sorry ass over here and try! Maybe once you join us you'll learn how to fly in a straight damned line!”

[Pipino]

Pipino stares up into the sky, head darting around as if searching for the source of the device as if it were some great mystery, unaccustomed to travel in such vessels and being a bit alarmed by it.

“Could we not provoke them, Gair!?” she protests, rolling her eyes and pushing herself to her feet, readying herself for whatever nonsense they were involved in now. She looks to Luna.

“So then, will you be leading the way? Or shall we make Gair lead the way since he prodded the hornets' nest?” she asks in a resigned voice, clearly unamused at their predicament.

[Luna]

The hand covering her mouth drops once more, simply tired of having to repeatedly unclasp. “I know naught what you wish me to do in such a situation. I do not possess the flight required to whisk over to the other ship and slay them where they stand.”

[Eligor]

There was to be no response to this, as instead of a heroic battle or foolish struggle, what instead occurred was what could only be described as sheer madness rearing its head. Actually, that was a lie. What was in fact happening, and what it would be described as was a massive clawed hand sprouting upwards from the clouds. Like several tree trunks and vines wound together into some sinful green sinew, it gripped the anchors linking the ships together. And with one unforgiving yank, it pulled them all down with an uncompromising and undaunted speed, crashing both ships into the sickly and corrupted branches of what was once the Shroud below, and knocking out everyone in both vessels.

—-

Into the Shroud

[Eligor]

A few minutes later…
Gair, Luna, and the Sinner all came to a lethargic stir, roots bursted in from the front of the ship, the enemy ship no longer anywhere in sight. The ship was not upright in the forest, but was rather being held at a strange angle by the mass of roots and branches that broke their descent. Pipino was not as lucky as the rest of the group, as the roots had already covered her entirely. Knocked out by the impact, she could not even resist as the roots slowly began to pull her from the ship.

[Pipino]

After a significant time Pipino awoke, feeling her body compressed in an impossible tightness that hardly left room for her to move. The ship went down, yet she lived at least. She must be trapped under some piece of wreckage, she thought as she groaned. Opening her eyes and seeing nothing but darkness. She started to panic, feeling as if she would just die here by virtue of being pinned here and never found. She lay there, lost in that unshakeable isolation and loneliness before she suddenly felt movement, the position of her body shifting, her restraints moving around her. Perhaps all hope was not lost then.

Pipino squirmed as much as she could now and found little give so she resorted to the skills she did not often fall back on save for special occasions. She took a calming breath and remembered lessons about aether. The images Annu taught her to envision, the currents Vinalo taught her to feel. She simply tried to focus her own naturally levin aspected aether into whatever bound her, focusing on her arms and physically trying to push and tear away at whatever was compressing her. The roots smoked and sizzled away as her aetherically charged hands dug into the flesh of the roots, gripping and tearing and ripping herself free passage. Eventually the Lalafell managed to dig her way out, pulling herself from the complex structure and resting atop it for a moment as she assessed the scene from on high and searched for her companions as she panted from the great physical and aetherical effort.

[Gair]

Gair groans and pulls back his hood, fucking hell I wish I was dead about now. His eyes slowly adjust to the slanted backdrop that is the crashed airship, slowly trying to piece together what had actually happened. The gears in his head slowly turning after realizing that there wasn't any real climactic showdown with the gunship that had hounded them with fire and insults. “I think…we both got hit. You all better not be…uuugh, dead.” He had a strange way of showing concern as he came to a stand, eyeing Luna and the Sinner. Then the roots that crawl among the bridge of their vessel. “The fuckin' Twelveswood, of course we'd run afoul of the woodwrath.”

[Luna] Slowly does the knightess jerk to life. She grasps at the ground with her metallic arm, lifting her head after a moment and looking around with a labored groan. “Where… Oh.” It doesn't take long for her to intuit what happened, slowly pushing herself up and using her sword as a cane to shakily prop herself up. After gazing into the dark forest's abyss for a moment or two does she turn to Gair, looking equally confused and annoyed. “Know you what happened? And… we are missing one. It would seem we have lost MIss Pipino.” she mentions, looking around.

[Pipino] Like a cat stuck in a tree, Pipino takes in the wreckage and awesome power of the woods from on high with great trepidation, her eye resting upon her companions at last. She shifts to her knees and carefully scoots toward the edge of the complex of roots, calling down. “Are you all alright!?” She looks around for a safe route down from her current position.

[Eligor]

The airship was tilted and tangled in the branches of a thick and gnarled looking tree. Previously teeming with life and the sounds of nature, The Black Shroud had become far more twisted in the passing years, the trees greyed and the leaves mottled. Instead of bountiful wildlife and vegetation, the forest floor was deadly silent save for the almost constant groaning of shifting tree bark and the echo of greenery being dragged against rough surfaces. The grass now appeared almost as a field of ashen flowers, with a light smog of pollen so thick it was visibly floating just above them like sticky but dusty webs.
The ships were still anchored to one another, but the enemy airship had clearly landed somewhere in the distance, as it was completely out of view in the shroud of trees.

[Pipino]

Pipino chews on her lip a bit as she looks about and crawls a bit closer to the opening in the ship that her prison had used to extract her from the ship, spying the pollen and the very dead looking remnants of a once lush and beautiful forest. “Is there a way for you to climb up? The forest has been overrun with the roots and…well, the floor by my estimation does not look like somewhere we ought to be walking at all. There is a cloud about it with a sinister look and…and all of it looks dead. It might be best to keep to the roots as they seem to be forming some kind of pathway.”

[Gair]

“The woods…or somethin' tried to kill us after the fuckin' arseholes in their ship did,” Gair pushes himself to a stand and looks up into the bored-in entrance that Pipino calls in from. “If I can find some rope 'an toss it up to you, can you secure it?” He begins to rummage through the area for anything vaguely rope or tether like to cast up toward Pipino. *These damn cultists better have had the good sense to pack fasteners 'an rope.* “I don't think I exactly trust the roots, but…fuck it.”

[Luna]

Luna sighs, following suit with Gair and taking off to look for some method to get to her. She also looks for crates or boxes to stack that would allow her to stretch her arm with sword in hand, holding by the blade, to allow Pipino to grab on.

[Eligor]

The Sinner does not seem keen on doing anything in particular, keeping a silent stare on the roots and vines slowly encroaching upon the innards of the airship.

[Pipino]

Pipino leans back and forth trying to get a look inside the ship to be as helpful as she can. “There are a lot of roots pierced through the ship… Are there maybe some you could use to climb up? That is if you cannot find rope. Just… do be careful. They seem to have a life of their own different even from the life we always recognized them having.”

[Gair]

Utterly unable to find any rope to pull himself up, Gair stares long and hard at the vines. “Those fuckin' things are movin'…” In lieu of a better climbable surface, he begins to seek out pieces of furniture to push to the center of the tilted room to clamber on top of- or at least provide a heightened platform to leap to the opening from.

[Luna]

Not having to venture far into the hold before discovering a plentiful supply of rope, Luna gathers it up before bringing it back to the puncture. “Miss Pipino, you will need to secure this somewhere that we may tether and climb up to you.” She says, tossing one end of the rope up towards the Lalafell.

[Pipino]

Pipino dares to lift her hands from the root system she was perched atop to catch the rope, quickly catching the end and resuming her handhold, not too keen on the possibility of falling off even still. “I will see what I can find. Hopefully whatever I do will not shift too much,” The Lalafell mused as she crawled along to find a structure branching off the main system to secure the rope to.

Pipino finds a suitable branch and secures the rope with a secure and intricate knot, once artful fingers finding themselves comfortably and nimbly passing the rope through its motions as if it were second nature. She tugs at the rope and calls back to Luna to signal that she had prepared everything, testing the knot and its hold. “It is ready!”

[Luna]

The knightess gives the tether a tug to confirm it's strength before grabbing onto it and tucking her legs around, beginning the slow climb up.

[Gair]

Gair waits at the base of the rope and gestures the Sinner over. “Come now, you. We still got a chance at all this long as you still breathe.” Idly he thumbs the crook on his belt, watching and waiting for any potential comers.

[Eligor]

The Sinner sighs a bit, still a bit transfixed by the vines, but obeys without protest. She grabs onto the rope and kind of…wraps herself around it a bit, almost as if tangling herself with it.

“Alright, I'm good.”

[Gair]

Gair stares at the Sinner who just coiled herself up. “Hells.” And he grabs a higher portion, climbing out over the woman. Somehow expecting them to do something themselves, but obliging disappointedly as he fishes them up with relative ease.

[Luna]

Luna has already clambered up, offering a metallic arm down to Gair and the Sinner to assist.

[Pipino]

Pipino takes a moment to look around at the overwhelming structures around her, on edge and vigilant, the unsettling silence broken by the occasional distant rustling. As she gazes aboutz without turning to the group, she turns and asks of the robed woman, “Are we anywhere near this hero? Or have you a heading at the very least?”

[Eligor]

“A wonderful question dear, and the perfect opportunity to preempt any other such questions.” She takes a deep breath as she begins to slowly untangle herself from the rope after accepting Luna’s assistance, clearly having to put in some effort again as her limbs seemed to be failing, similarly to how she could barely walk before. “I cannot divine this hero or their location beyond simply being within this….dense forest. It is difficult to explain to the unlearned, but to put it lightly this hero’s aether is quite literally all over the place. It is across the sea. It is in the wilds. Traces of it are even in our manly protest to facial grooming here—so it is quite exceptional that I have traced the source of that aether to this place at all. But more importantly, the aether is….laced throughout the forest here my one-shaded acquaintance, as if it’s actively battling this blighted forest—which itself is this extremely thick and frankly revolting source of aether all it’s own. Surely even you three can feel it?”

“But while I cannot day for sure where the hero is, I CAN say for sure that the largest concentration of it seems to be….huh. If I’m correct it’s around where Fallgourd Float should be. That’s…strange. But even in its disgusting state I can tell where we should be headed.”

She turns towards the southeast and points, sticking her chest out a bit.

“That way! Would have been much easier from above.”

[Luna]

Fallgourd Float, how interesting. “I do not sense aether with any particular skill. But if you say the highest concentration is at Fallgourd Float, then so be it.” The woman turns from the Sinner and looks in the direction indicated, searching for some sort of path. “True it would have been easier from above, but here we are. I did not see you piloting the ship.”

[Eligor]

“Neither did you Ishgardian. Did they not teach that in knight school or whatever passed for education there? No useful tidbits about Garlean engineering during the Coerthan sermons? On second thought, perhaps this is an unfair retort, considering what passed for justice there not so long ago included having people willingly jump off cliffs to prove they were not indeed of the dravanian horde. Perhaps that flawless line of thought kept the city safe in it's ignorant icecube whilst the rest of the realm burned.”

[Luna]

Luna raises an eyebrow while looking down at the SInner metaphorically. “We learned of pursuits more advantageous than how to pilot these contemptible vehicles. They could never have predicted the state of the world where-in a sordid trio wouldst require such knowledge. As for the Inquisition and Witchdrop, they were a regrettable time in our history. Much like your existence is upon the present.” she says, contempt in her voice.

[Eligor]

“Exactly. So while it is fair to assume that you would not possibly know that one day you might need to pilot a Garlean aircraft, it is fair to reason that I also had better things to learn. Just because I'm smarter than all of you does not mean I'm omni-talented.”

“…And its a bit of a sore spot. I might have overreacted. A tad.”

[Gair]

“Here I wish I couldn't feel the corruption that hasn't gripped this place, seven fuckin' hells..” Gair's attentions are drawn to the southeast, his gaze lifting through the corrupted ashen boughs that the once verdant Twelveswood has become. He steps for the edge of the airship and eyes the vines for any footing to take down. From his belt he draws the stick once more as his means of protection and begins to hazard an attempt to pass over the vines to find some sort of solid ground.

[Eligor]

Strangely enough, Gair would find no issue with this attempt. The vines themselves even seemed somewhat respondent to his direction of travel, more vines appearing and, while threateningly coiling to grab once more, were clearly also forming into a path of sorts. One might reason that not lingering was key to not being made into a forest snack.

[Pipino]

Pipino followed after Gair, jogging a few steps to keep up afraid that the vines might decide to choose a different path should they not stay close together. “It does feel a bit oppressive. It has been a long time since I felt the aether of this place, and it certainly did not feel like this.” She shook her head, fond memories of time spent in these woods, remembering a time when it felt peaceful, when she first had her eyes opened to feeling aether around her and not just her own. “It is reprehensible, the things that have been done to this place. How glad it would be if we could somehow right this imbalance.”

[Luna]

The knightess follows behind, keeping an eye out for threats. “That is what we endeavor to do, with any luck it shall come to pass. That we might return to the way life once was.” If we can truly go back.

[Eligor]

“Why go back when you can improve?”

[Gair]

“There is no going back, what's dead will never rise again,” Gair saunters along the forming path, tamping his boot for good measure on the vines a he walks to make damn sure he isn't threatened. Fucking vines. “Hydaelyn has a fuckin' twisted sense of humor, at the end of the world…and it's last bulwark against tyranny is some old hag, a zealot, a monetarist and a thieving murderer.”

[Eligor]

“Scientist, thank you.”

[Luna]

Luna remains silent, choosing not to voice her seething disagreement. Instead she continues her vigil as they meander, a strange sense filling her to see her birthplace ruined in such a way.

[Pipino]

“Not quite sure how great a Monetarist I make when there is no Sultanate left to disagree with, or a Syndicate left to support. Do not get me wrong, I know it is not like things will just return to how they were. We all went through the Calamity after all. Just… It should not be in this state.”

She paused as Gair began seeking his way down. “Is that cloud safe to walk in? I suppose at least two of us are resistant to being turned, but… I am wary of the ways this forest chooses to infect others.”

[Eligor]

“Oh? And why might that be?”

[Pipino]

“Well, Luna, for the most part. I do not recall you saying anything about her that keeps her protected.”

[Eligor]

“Does she not believe Halone will shield her? Is that not sufficient?”

[Pipino]

Pipino shrugs. “There are many things I trust to Halone these days for the simple desire to not have to worry myself over them, but to keep me from being turned? Enough Ishgardians and transplants backed by the Fury have not come back from battles for me to know she is powerless to stop it. And besides, even if Luna decides that is enough, she is not the one that will have to deal with herself when it inevitably happens.”

[Eligor]

Perhaps, thought the sinner to herself, looking ahead to see where Gair’s path was leading them.

[Gair]

“She's fought this long without gettin' turned,” Gair doesn't seem all that concerned about anyone's particular fate about being corrupted. Forging ahead at a steady pace, eyes closed as he himself tries to focus on the invasive aether in himself as a guide. Whether successful or no, he continues southeasterly with his crook firmly in his grasp.

[Eligor]

After a while, the group appeared at the outskirts of what should have been Fallgourd Float, but it was far different than 3 years would suggest. The area around the camp proper was a massive hold going down to an unknown depth, with a burning red light shining from the deepest reaches like a red star. The camp had people manning the bridges—which were now made of some heavy looking metal slabs—but even at this distance their features were obscured somewhat. They appeared to be cloaked in shadows.

[Luna]

The knightess brings her hand to her sword's hilt, immediately on edge due to the strange people. She had not much to say about Gair's words, not wishing to go into any length of detail about what she had to do during those long three years. She positions herself slowly closer to the front of the group, ready to bring her shield up and draw her weapon if needed.

[Pipino]

Pipino paused as she surveyed the area, once one of her favorites. She recalled sweet conversations, memories at a market, beautiful autumn days spent in crisp air enjoying pleasant company. All of it was lost now, and that realization pained her more than she expected it to.

She too readies her weapon. “So, where do we even begin to look? It seems like trying to find a needle within a haystack.”

[Eligor]

The shadows seemed to turn towards each other for a while before charging forward, a single shadow with a longsword charging towards the group while the rest readied arrows.

[Luna]

Quickly does Luna cross to be in front of the group fully now, shield humming to life from her arm and being thrust into place in front of her.

[Gair]

“Put the sword down you daft bastard before I take it and shove it down your throat!” Gair barks a threat at the shadow, turning the “point” of his crook inward onto his chest in some oddly threatening manner. Looking as if he were ready to draw *something*.

[Eligor]

The shadow stopped but the arrows didn’t. A volley of arrows flew overhead in a wide arc before suddenly bursting into flames mid flight, flying over the group and into the wood behind them….Where a massive wooden arm emerged from the smog of trees. The vines beneath the group’s feet began to shake erratically now, and a second volley of arrows flew over the group. Now, the previously silent wood burst into life with the sound of thousands of chittering screeches and roaring bark, and like a wave behind the group a bulging mass of wooden figures emerged, charging all at once towards the group. The shadow person with the sword was still waiting at their spot a distance away, beckoning for the group to come quickly.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT?

[Pipino]

Pipino was shaken down to her knee and she whipped her head around briefly as she heard the unnatural din behind her. She had fought the corrupted before, but never the corrupted wood, so her choice was simple. She scrambled to her feet, gun cradled in her hand as she took the chance to dash in the direction of the man with the sword. She watched his movements carefully, a finger on the trigger needing only a hint of danger to move into action.

[Luna]

Luna turns to see what the mysterious folk could possibly be fighting other than them only to see the gargantuan forest fisty boi. Deciding that dealing with betrayal by new non-hostiles would be better than an impromptu chiropractor, she forms the back of the group with her shield, covering their retreat as she moves.

[Gair]

Fly, with the charging shadow stayed by his vulgarity. Gair lowers his crook and makes to beat feet toward the sword bearer, taking his chances with the figure rather than the immediate murder from the surrounding trees. His boots plodding on the metal bridge. “Looks like we found someone with sense!”

[Eligor]

Up close the figure was revealed to be a moon keeper, and the moment the group all laid feet on the Slav bridge, he swung his sword down towards the vines that led them there, a series of explosions reacting with the vines and causing them all to snatch back and roll up like measuring tape. The sinner lagged behind everyone else, but at least the new group had found safety. Or the would have at least, but a new set of bow and arrows was now trained on the group while the rest fired at the roused forest.
“Prove you’re not turned,” said the man behind them calmly, his weapon at his side now rather than trained on the group. We’ll not turn away survivors but we’ll not eat a poisoned fruit either.”

[Luna]

Feeling some semblance of safety amongst resistance members, Luna relaxes a bit. “You may check us for the tell-tale crystals. We bear none.” she says simply.

[Eligor]

“Crystals?” Says a crass but female voice from behind the gathering crowd, “Nah, that ain’t the issue. I need somethin’ better than that.”

Quietly the group began to murmur about the survivors. Despite clearly being ready to lay waste to them at a moments notice, the groups presence was still causing a rising excitement. Brief hints of happiness even.

[Pipino]

Pipino lowered her weapon only slightly but still remained on alert, looking over her shoulder as Luna remained focused on the group for some evidence of what happened to the sinner.

“Well, what is it you need of us? Or shall we play guessing games?”

The Lalafell furrowed her brow slightly, blinking rapidly before closing her eyes momentarily. She shook her head as if shaking something off before focusing her attention back on the crowd.

[Eligor]

A figure emerged from the crowd, the shadows surrounding her far darker than the others. Slowly the shadows peeled away from her face, revealing a green skinned Xaela woman beneath, the majority of her face lazily painted over with white, and her limbal rings glowing a burning yellow.

“I just need you to tell me how you found us in the first place.”

[Pipino]

Pipino's eye widened slightly in recognition. It had been a long time but it was difficult to forget that face.

“We were following a vague aether signature,” she replied, careful about what she shared.

Looking up to Luna, she warns her in a softer voice. “Be on your guard.” She kept her gaze moving about in a systematic way, poised and waiting for something unseen to pop out from some unknown location as she canvassed her field of vision.

[Gair]

“The Dhalmels before would be beside themselves with grief if they knew a tomcat would reside in these woods even after the world's fuckin' ended…” Gair shakes his head as he notices the eyes and ears of the moonkeeper. When proof is requested and asked for, he pulls back what remains of his robe to show what is less of a necklace and more of a bandolier: a chain adorned with a myriad of crystals, blood stained from their original bearers. More irritated by the presence of bows and arrows trained on him than their actual threat. “You should be thanking us, that we didn't decide a wildfire was the most efficient means through this place.”

[Luna]

Though she doesn't nod to Pipino, she maintains some level of readiness. “Evidently there is aught that remains in the Twelveswood that might lead to salvation of this awful blight. We come to pursue such a goal.”

[Eligor]

The woman stares for a while, looking between each of the group’s members slowly. Eventually, a smile cracks across her painted features and she opens her arms, turning her head slightly and addressing the crowd. The tension in the air noticeably dispersed.

“Well let em through guys! They’re on a mission!”

The crowd slowly opens a way for the group to go through, revealing what was new about Fallgourd Float in the apocalypse. The wood had all been almost completely replaced with thick metal slabs which seemed to adorn the location now like a welded shell. The aetheryte in the center was of course thoroughly destroyed, but in its place there seemed to be a massive cannon—also welded to some makeshift swivel device—that was strangely aimed skyward. The Xaela seemed to be motioning towards a particularly unwelcoming looking hut to the south of the village, but the group could just as easily keep going through the village and head east if they so chose. There seemed to be a clear way out from that direction, unlike they way they came.

[Pipino]

Pipino hesitates in advancing forward, turning instead over her shoulder and looking rather anxious about the condition of the sinner. She appeared conflicted.

[Luna]

Luna steps towards the hut, though she stops to regard everything. “We appreciate your assistance, but I must say that time may be of the essence. If you have aught that may help us track down this so-called hero, we would hear of it. Elsewise we may need to keep moving.” Her tone was controlled and on the warmer side for who she had become, still practiced and measured even if inwardly she felt much more like just storming off in search of their quarry.

[Gair]

Gair eyes the hut suspiciously and shakes his head. Murmuring to the trio of women with him, “Their worries were dispersed *too* quickly.” Luckily his stick was just that to the naked eye, a stick! He lifted his gaze all about Fallgourd Float, taking in the odd sight of iron on all sides. *An improvement*, he thought. Turning to the Sinner in their midst, he queries. “Do we mosey further in, or look about here for a tick?”

[Eligor]

The Sinner shrugged following behind. “I’m for plans that don’t complicate our goa—“

The Sinner was promptly cut off by having her neck suddenly grasped from behind by the Xaela and lifted from her feet, still smiling as she was before, even while her grip was clearly digging grooves into the Sinner’s pale neck.

“I didn’t say you,” said the Xaela with badly concealed malice, her limbal rings burning even brighter. I believe I made you a promise last time we spoke.”

“You lot got any details about this hero you’re lookin’ for? Like what they look like for example?”

She continued to address the group normally despite the Sinner dangling helplessly in her hand.

[Luna]

Luna moves immediately, finding her place at the side of the Xaela and grabbing her hand, removing The Sinner from her grasp but staying her blade against her better judgement.

[Eligor]

The moment the Xaela was touched, the tension returned to the area. Bow and arrows were immediately drawn and pointed directly at Luna and the Sinner, who was still coughing on the ground now and clearly trying to gasp for air.

The Xaela turned to address Luna, still calm despite a vein popping idly on her neck.

“You even know who this one is? The rest of you are fine. No reason to harm the rest of ye.”

[Luna]

“I am aware of her part in all of this. But I am also aware that she is involved with ridding the realm of this blight. I do not enjoy her prescence any more than you, but I would not fail my duty as an aegis merely because I ill enjoy her company.”

[Gair] “I do,” Gair rumbles, looking on at the Sinner with a rather detached gaze. “They're our prisoner, and we have need of them for our mission. If they prove themselves incapable of the task, I will rip their heart out myself.”

[Eligor]

“Comforting news,” she retorted, waving her hands for the bows to be put away. “So again, this hero got defining characteristics? Maybe a damn name?”

[Pipino]

“I have have never been given one. Our…prisoner has led us thus far and can feel their aether, but nothing behind that. She has not met her. I had heard snatches of Hero's Blood in the past from a mutual acquaintance of ours, but, well… I have certainly never been given any details. You were much closer to him though in the end. Perhaps you know?”

[Eligor]

“I know you blondie?”

The woman crossed her arms.

[Pipino]

“We met once, in front of the college. I had blue hair back then and was asking you about a gun he'd given me.”

[Eligor]

“Huh. Alright. Well in that case…yeah, I know who you’re here for. There’s a problem though.”

[Pipino]

“And what would that be?” she asks, sounding slightly annoyed that she has to prompt the response when she could just give the answer in the first place.

[Eligor]

“They ain’t as nice as I am, and if they pop off I’m not about to get in their way.”

[Pipino]

“Well, we will just have to try our best not to make them 'pop off' then, will we not? I am sure it is easier said than done though.” She sighs and closes her eyes a moment, composing herself a bit. “Can we expect any aid in reaching them then? Directions, direct assistance, escorts…? If all goes well we might be able to stop this madness.”

[Eligor]

“You sure about this? Don’t need any extra information or…?”

[Pipino]

“I would count extra information as aid.”

[Eligor]

The woman pointedly nods at the Sinner who is still hacking for air.

“You three might to get away from that one. They had the extra bits ripped off already but the new ones are still enough to do what they want.”

[Gair]

“How about weaknesses, in case they need to be disabled,” Gair suggests, clearly of mind to prepare for the worst rather than hope for a successful negotiation.

[Eligor] Abigor#0818

“Ok yeah, we can do that. Quick question are you here to help em or kill em?”

[Gair]

“Alive,” Gair answers promptly. “What do you mean 'help', they got a problem of their own or something?”

“Besides what everyone is already dealin' with outt here,” Gair gestures around.

[Eligor]

“No, but you’re a group of weirdos on a mission in the middle of nowhere, and apparently being led by a source that destroys pretty much all of your credibility. And now you just so happen to want a weakness of someone you apparently came to find. For peaceful reasons of course. Would you believe this enormous blob of shite?”

[Gair]

“No, which is why I intend to do my part. Willing 'hero' or no. They can either accept the outlandish situation and help us unmake what the world has become, or they can enjoy it from a cage while we do what needs to be done.” Gair is very, very blunt and straight up about his intentions. For any credibility, he looks down at the Sinner who hacks from the prior choking. Suggesting, “If you want proof I ain't her thrall, get a healer out here. I'll gladly rip out every toe, fingernail and tooth right here.”

In fact, Gair removes his right gauntlet and from a deep pocket he pulls out a pair of rusty pliers.

[Pipino]

Pipino glares at Gair. “There is no reason for that behavior. The way you are acting, you might as well have turned yourself. Calm yourself so we can come to a plan of sensible action, not revel in some sadistic display of how poorly you have adjusted to this new world.” She looks to the Xaela. “Aside from the obvious reasons to have misgivings about her, I have reason to believe that she possesses knowledge we need, this reason given to me through faith in someone I feel I can trust somehow. Perhaps if you let us know about what greater threat she possesses we can take proper precautions and achieve both goals without incident, no matter how slim that chance may be. It may be the best one we have, however, I am open to hearing alternatives.”

[Gair]

“I'm perfectly calm,” Gair shakes his head at Pipino, he seems to take some form of enjoyment in the ire he drew from her. A wicked grin curls his lips up. “By all means, little Pino. I defer to the level-headed approach you propose until a more savage hand is needed.” Snip snip, he actuates the pliers for emphasis.

[Eligor]

The Xaela looks at the group with squinting eyes, apparently unconvinced. If anything, mentioning knowledge seemed to amuse the woman; she was clearly holding back a laugh. Upon noticing that the surrounding forest was suddenly rustling again however, she quickly dropped her smirk, clicking her tongue in irritation and turning to the Miqo’te man that had let them in before, motioning irritably.`

“Fuck it, sound the horn.” She turned to the group, half growling in irritation, “You lot want a hint? Rest is a priority.”

The man runs into the nearby hut and returns with a horn, taking a deep breath before running to the edge of the village and blowing it. At first there is nothing but the echo of the horn and the rattling of the forest, but after a moment the rattling from the forest is accompanied by a thunderous rumbling from below.

[Pipino]

Pipino places a hand to her head, and her expression falls into a wince as she hisses through her teeth. “I do not think we shall have the luxury of rest,” she says with a slightly strained voice as she reaches for her weapon. “What have you awoken with that horn?”

[Eligor]

Red aether bursts upward from beneath the village like an eruption, and creatures–clearly monsters–climb up the walls of the deep crater, roaring and screeing as they come to face the forest. As if at the same time, several more of the wood creatures reappear, accompanied by a far more sinister version of the living trees, mutated wildlife, and what appeared to be people half fused with the corrupted wood. The two groups faced off for now, still staring each other down threateningly for the coming battle, when finally amongst the creatures a small, tiny figure appeared, cloaking in burning crimson aether like a veil. The tiny figure landed on top of one of the beasts from the crater, a monster that seemed to be chunks of meat stitched together rather than a living creature. From the forest, the dense gathering of the half-wood soldiers parted, bowing slightly as a figure emerged from the darkness of the forest. As the figure approached and was illuminated by the light from the village, their features became more clear. It was….

Familiar and Strange Faces

[A'erina]

One and a half ears, a long tail not so bushy anymore, Red hair not as beautiful as it once was, white streaks and a majority of it almost all burnt away, crimson eyes showing no emotion, those boots she always seemed to wear now tattered and devoid of colour, skin almost pale, with burn marks visible from every angle, seeping out aether from several parts of her body as if it's the only thing keeping her alive. As she made her approach, she ran a hand across one of the minions of corruption's face as if it was a pet.

“Fascinating things aren't they? They will do whatever I tell them, provided it's what we want.” The barely recognisable individual walks closer to the front so that the group can get a proper look at her.

“You left me to die. Through everything, I've always been there, but when I needed any of you, I was alone. ” A'erina looked at the trio whom she once called friends.“ Do you know what can happen in a lab when you're left with no options and don't want to become one of these mindless creatures? ”

[Gair]

“Ask any one of Garlemald's unfortunate experiments, you could co-author a fuckin' book,” Gair slowly claps for A'erina, of all the people who'd survived, he had a mildly impressed look on his features. The second of which that broke his dour demeanor, the first being suicidal elation on the airship. Remaining stalwart in the face of the rumbling earth and sinister display of the meat-stitched beasts and forest seemingly coming to life.

“And I'd have done it again, it was my duty to protect the weak of the tribe. One I'd failed in,” Gair gestures all around him. “A failure I intend to unmake.”

[Pipino]

Just before A'erina showed up to greet them, Pipino found herself brought to her knees as the pain she was experiencing apparently seemed to increase. She managed not to cry out, but she trembled with trying to deal with it all, hyperventilating a bit before she suddenly appeared as she if she experienced great relief, relaxing her position and wiping beads of sweat from her brow.

She pushes herself up to her feet a bit shakily. “S-sorry…but… well, A'erina, I am glad to see you too,” she sarcastically replies. “But honestly, all of us fended for ourselves in some way, so we are all equally guilty of leaving the others behind when it counted. You are not the only victim at the end of the world, believe it or not.”

[A'erina]

“…I'll indulge you anyway. I managed to keep myself hidden away in my lab for what seemed like a long time, turns out it was only six or seven days. I decided that, after my linkpearl ceased working and I was alone, I'd be able to give up. ” A'erina takes a moment to laugh, loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear it. “I made a fucking bomb! I piled everything up and decided to atleast take out as many of these things as I could. Turns out, its better to be at the initial point of the explosion and not several yalms away. I should be dead… I *am* dead. ” She holds up her arms as the aether seeps from cracks and openings in her skin. holding out a hand and catching some of it in her palm. “ Yet here I am, alive, thanks to the Dark One… ” A'erina squints her eyes at Pipino “ Still got a voice I see, almost didn't see you there.”

One of the half-wood soldiers slowly shambles towards A'erina dragging an axe along the ground behind it “ Ah, was wondering where that went. You should have boarded us when you had the chance. It would have saved everyone a great deal of trouble if I'd have ended you there and then.” the soldier holds the handle of the axe up towards A'erina, somewhat shakily as if scared of her, she reaches for it but the soldier doesn't let go quick enough as she swings it up over her shoulder and the poor creature is sent flying a rather impressive distance.

[Eligor]

The burning figure atop the monsters–likely the hero–suddenly fades away. At the same time, an area of the black shroud to the left of where the hero was a moment ago ignites with the same red aether, initiating the attack. Taking that as the signal, all of the beasts begin to charge at the same time towards the wooden army, crashing against one another with a sickening sound of meat smacking against crunching wood. The hero seemed to be quickly rampaging through the forest, as the blazing trail of aether flaring up through the trees like an aurora quickly starting to circle the outskirts of the village stronghold. Whatever was happening, the Sinner seemed to STILL be struggling to catch her breath, and promptly passes out as the battle begins. The Xaela woman with the group had already gone off to bark orders at her shadowy subordinates, leaving a chunk of the meat monsters to charge for A'erina and her half wooden subordinates.

[A'erina]

A'erina turrns to the assembled army and flicks her head towards the creatures, the soldiers acknowledging as they head into battle with the flesh beasts. She looks back at the trio briefly and gives them a nod, after all she was still A'erina, and proceeds to join the rest of the army in the conflict.

A'erina immediately rushes amidst the army, some of them stumbling as she knocks them over and finds herself at the front of her soldiers, immediately raising her axe aloft and bringing it down to the ground, a sizeable fissure opening up the ground, swallowing a considerable amount of the flesh creatures. “ Kill every last one of 'em! Don't make me do this shit by myself!”

[Luna]

Luna sneers at the revelation of A'erina's life, finding the source of her strength abhorrent, but chooses not to speak. Instead she bends down to pick up the Sinner, throwing her over her own shoulder and carrying her with her right arm so that she might still use her shield.

[Gair]

With the chaos of the battle raging around the village, and the four of them left to linger in the relative protection of the walls. Gair looks from Luna and then to Pipino to confer for their next course of action. “So, do we just sit on the sidelines to let Rina 'an this hero tucker themselves out? Rina did say she was on that fuckin' ship who shot at us.” His gaze trails to where the Xaela retreated, a rarity, his willingness to be conniving *and* sit a fight out for once. “Not to mention…they said as much that rest is a priority.”

[Pipino]

“As it stands, helping A'erina is fighting on the side of the corrupted and assisting the Dark One. I refuse to have any part in that. It might be best to let those forces battle it out for now, keeping vigilant here. I would also like to tend to the sinner. Her current condition is worrisome.”

[Luna]

The knightess's gaze falls upon Gair. “I only made one assurance to leave your kin alive, and it certainly did not fall upon her. She is vile as it is now, suffuse with corruption and madness. I bear no interest in assisting one such as her. If we should benefit from allowing her to deplete her own candle to aid ours, so be it.”

[A'erina]

Amidst the battle, several corrupted roots make their way towards the flesh creatures, wrapping around what is presumably their legs or arms, anything resembling a limb, dragging them off into the darkness of the forest. one root however makes it's way towards A'erina and stops within reach of her as it is coiled around a Greatsword. “ Thank you, darlin'.” She drops her axe momentarily, her hand sliding across the root as if showing it affection. She holds the sword, before placing her other hand on the bottom of the blade, moving it all the way to the point and gets excited for a second, using some kind of magic she never knew she had until recently to set the sword ablaze. She picks her axe back up, and continues to fight the creatures, swinging left and right with both sword and axe.

It doesn't take long for the flesh creatures to be somewhat overwhelmed, the corrupted minions perhaps would have struggled if not for their captain's abilities aiding them. As she gives the order to slay the rest of the stragglers, she turns around, covered in pieces of flesh and blood, her eyes looking somewhat pleased with what she had accomplished, and begins making her way back to the trio as the 'claws' of an almost dead creature reaches out and slashes at her leg. A few drops of blood rolls down her leg, the creature grips her leg only to feel burning pain as it's hand corrodes away at an alarming rate, she brings her foot down on whats left of the beast almost making a miniature crater in the ground

[Pipino] Pipino takes the lead and begins to head toward the hut that had been gestured to in a moment of peace, not sure if they are still welcome there or not. True to her word, she assumes A'erina is off fighting some epic wild battle, so she turns her back on the way she had left. “Besides, I cannot be taking such risks, fighting in these types of battles if I can help it,” she says, referring to the information the sinner had told her about her blood and its importance in reversing things.

[Gair]

“Then go, Pip, I need to…watch this. Make certain my hand ain't needed out there,” Gair nods toward Pipino and Luna both before stepping away from the trio of women. *Hopefully those three will get on alright without me, if it comes down to it.* He exhales a sigh and meanders out for the path they arrived, for the foot of the metal bridge that had bore them across. He crosses his arms over his chest and finds a metal slab to lean against, taking the measure of this hero and what had become of his cousin. *It may well fall to me, to bring you peace. Like A'tera.*

[Eligor]

With a wild shriek from the forest, the tiny figure bursts into the village clearing still shrouded in red aether. The figure threw a head directly at A’erina with great speed—one whom she might recognize as the severed head of her pilot—before screaming wildly again and jumping back into the forest, another wave of neat monsters soon emerging from the crater to continue the fight.

[A'erina]

A'erina would hold out a hand and catch the flying head of her pilot, looking at it for a brief moment before looking at the figure. “ Tch, persistant little prick!” She tosses the head to the ground and looks towards the village and the bridge, noticing Gair standing there, presumably waiting for her. She holds her sword up and points at him with it “ I'm stronger now… You'll lose, and everyone will see just how strong I am.”

The forest starts making it's telltale signs of moving foliage again as several roots start making their way to A'erina and her army. She looks as they make their fast approach “ ..But not today, it seems. I'm needed elsewhere, perhaps Ishgard has already fallen, or they're in need of me there to raze it while you cower behind your pathetic holdouts, shadows and red aether…” a single thick root wraps itself a few times around her waist and drags her off into the shroud of the darkened forest, the other roots grabbing as many of her army as they can and doing the same, some being left behind as fodder for the meat creatures.

[Gair]

“A meaningless contest in a dead world, cousin!” Gair steps forward and spreads his arms wide, as if to invite her to take his life. “If you wish to breathe your last to this old ghost, by all means.” With a smooth gesture, he brings his broken crook over his throat and traces from ear to ear in clear suggestion. With A'erina's disappearance, he loops his crook onto his belt and rests his hands on his belt. Turning to return to the center of Fallgourd Float, interested only in the state of their party.

[Eligor]

The Sinner had yet to stir, and the supposed hero was still rampaging through the wood.

[Luna]

A snarl forms on the knightess's face as she reluctantly nods back at Gair. Quickly does she turn to join Pipino in heading towards the hut, the Sinner carried about as comfortably as could be expected given the circumstances. “It is better him than I to deal with such a… display.” she mentions sidelong to the Lalafell as they move.

[Gair]

Gair reaches a hand out and grabs the Sinner's foot to give it a shake, only for her to continue to be unconscious. He gives it another shake and grunts, *if only there were a certain conjurer here about now*. “ Did you kill her?” He asks rather casually as he looks from Luna to Pipino. After a pause, he offers his own recollection of the battle that had taken part just outside the steel walls. “The Dark One has a champion of his own, I suggest we make a move on the hero soon else we run the risk of a battle on two fronts.”

[Eligor]

Slowly, the Sinner comes to a stir from Gair’s rude shaking, kicking and moaning weakly in response. As if signaled, a moment later a loud thumping sounded at the entrance to the hut, a glowing red aura obscuring a small figure hunched over on the ground like a feral beast. The hero had arrived.`

[Luna]

“No I did not lay her low. Surely she deserves such but I have not acted upon it. Mayhap I should have.” she says coldly. As the sound of the new arrival occured, the woman goes into a defensive stance, aether flowing from her left arm into a shield which she holds in front of her and moves forward, readied.

[Pipino]

“Well, speak of the devil.” Pipino steps to the side, curiously taking in the small angry being before them. She studies its form for a moment, a hand ready for a quick draw should it come to it, but not wanting to appear threatening just yet. Keeping her eyes on it, she tries the peaceful route, just to make sure it is tried. “We wish you no harm,” she says hesitantly, not exactly feeling like a master diplomat.

[Eligor]

“GRAAAAAH!”

The moment Pipino brought attention to herself, the hero stood up, very clearly enraged. She did not waste movement or time further, closing the distance within the space of several heartbeats and thrusting a red shrouded hand for Pipino’s left eye.

[Gair]

Dice

The picture of sandy pirate Jesus himself, Gair barely gets his crook out in time. Wielding it with purpose as the hero himself tries to take Pipino's eye as a trophy. But rather than strike, he tries to guide and control the hero with the hooked end of the crook as if they were another sheep in the flock. Aiming to hook the man by the neck and ground him.

[Eligor]

Hero action

The red figure was rather light all things considered, and after being caught was easily redirected onto the floor as if it was completely outside their realm of imagination. There was a stunned moment as the hero hit the floor, where they seemed to have completely spaced out from the attack. A moment later however, there was a slight shifting in the hips followed by the sound of a heavy object swinging through the air. Rather than trying to escape Gair, a blade had emerged from the hero’s backside before flying again towards Pipino!

[Pipino]

Heroic action

Pipino saw the blade and her visible eye went wide, the Lalafell crouching low and springing sideways, rolling away from the attack swiftly and recovering her position in a three-point crouch as she withdrew her weapon from her back and swiftly fired an aetherically charged round at them, the bullet crackling and sparking with an aura of levin that made it look like a streak of lightning.

[Eligor]

Hero action

The hero twisted up in ways that seemed far too unnatural to do, bending and scraping out from beneath Gair’s crook before jumping back as the bullet arced towards her retreating form. The aether surrounding her seemed to take the levin bullet, but the force of it still knocked her onto her bottom. Quickly snapping into a crouched position, she continued to growl savagely at Pipino, even as the red aether surrounding her body faded away, revealing what was shrouded underneath.
Flesh that seemed stitched on and burned. Wooden limbs that bent and snapped unnaturally to an unheard rhythm, large, unblinking eyes behind a badly cobbled together mask that seemed to resemble a face, but with sharp and grinding wooden teeth constantly visible just underneath. She was covered in little cuts, nicks, and scratches all over, and smelled of burning wood. This tiny wild woman was supposedly the hero.

[Luna]

Heroic action

Luna takes the proffered opening, rushing to find herself behind the supposed Hero. Quickly does her shield come down as she grabs the hero, hooking her arms around odd shoulders, using a foot to knock the hero's own foot into an entwined hook with Luna's own, effectively creating a tight hold. Aether hums from and around her arm, ready to be applied if the situation arises.

[Eligor]

Hero action.

The hero head butted Luna hard before jumping into the air, struggling and realigning herself into an awkward backflip in mid air before the sound of an uncomfortable scraping and a pop was heard; she had removed her wooden arms and in the same instance reared herself to kick off of Luna’s forehead, launching herself yet again for Pipino while screaming and now bleeding from arm stubs mid air, aiming a diving bite for Pipino’s face.

[Pipino]

Dice

Pipino shields her left side of her face with her left arm, switching her weapon to her right hand only to extend it and send a short burst of flame at the Hero, hoping to catch their wooden components on fire to slow their erratic movement down and deter them from getting too close.

[Eligor]

The hero was indeed hit by the fire, but strangely enough her wooden prosthetics did not catch flame. The rags she was wearing however very much did. More importantly, the fire itself seemed to have much more of an effect on the woman psychologically, as her frantic growls shifted into terrified screams and running around in circles. She seemed set to lunge at Pipino yet again out of rage and desperation, but was stopped by a shadowed hand yanking her back by the hair and patting her down. It was the Xaela from earlier who very pointedly declared she would NOT stop the person she was currently subduing. She still seemed ready to launch herself at Pipino at any moment, but the presence of the Xaela woman was clearly having some kind of calming effect. She was now sitting like an armless house pet.

The Xaela looked towards Gair and Pipino, shaking her head in disgust.

“What the FUCK happened now? Where the seven hells are her arms? I thought you wanted help, not to set the damn brat on fire!”

“Stupid fucking way to get help ain’t it?”

[Pipino]

“I cannot help anything if she's dead set on ripping my face apart,” Pipino replies coldly, catching her breath and pushing herself up to her feet.

[Eligor]

“Well that face does scream punch me…”

[Gair]

Gair presents the end of his crook against his chest, looking ready to draw some sort of weapon with his stick. Ready to intercede until the Xaela steps in to grasp them and put them in their place. “Glare at me all you want, woman. I controlled that ferocious little thing with naught but a stick.” After a pause, he turns the question back onto her. “Or am I to let one key component to this mission tear the other apart?”

[Eligor]

“She managed to only attack one other shite lord before you arse cracks showed up. You sure blondie ain’t a damn spy?”

[Luna]

The knightess recoils from the headbutt and anime facejump combo, taking a moment to recover. Once she does, her eyes dart around to locate the Hero before locating her - docile and unmoving. Absolutely perplexed but not willing to show it, she stares at the Xaela as they speak, aether still humming out of her arm idly.

[Gair]

Gair looks from the Xaela to Pipino now. Questioning and curious, he asks of the former. “Wait, can they feel corruption or some shite?”

[Pipino]

Pipino stows her weapon on her back and crosses her arms shaking her head. “Ridiculous. What a ridiculous assertion. I would kill myself and beg for death before I would allow myself to be slave to that thing.”

[Eligor]

The Xaela squints her eyes, while the hero seems to rattle in place, seemingly only now noticing she had lost her arms in the earlier scuffle.

“…Bad blood,” she finally uttered with a mechanical sounding voice, “Must take.”

Speaking seemed to be a source of pain for the hero. She seemed to catch on something in her throat inbetween each word, like a particularly thick hair all caught on something.

“Can help.”

[Pipino]

Pipino looks to the Xaela, shaking her head in confusion before her eye bounces between the both of them. “Help with what?”

[Eligor]

“You said you know me,” said the Xaela, now raising an eyebrow and looking to the ground as if to find memories there, “so how exactly is that again?”

[Pipino]

“I already mentioned it, I had met you briefly in front of the college, presuming you do not have a twin or someone who enjoys that particular method of painting your face. We spoke of the weapon I was given, and whether or not our mutual acquaintance deserved to die or not. I do not presume to know you from such a small interaction, but you are familiar to me.”

[Eligor]

“Had twins….but I guess that clears it up. Did you drink his blood at some point?”

[Pipino]

She looked insulted and disgusted at the same time. “Of course not.”

[Eligor]

“That’s the only explanation for it. If she was just pissed cause of the taint, I’d wager she’d be tearing that hooded bitch in half, not trying to get at you.”

As if summoned by trash talk, the Sinner finally sat up, rubbing at her mask like it was her face.

“…Looks like I’m not dead. Wonderful.”

The Sinner froze around the sight of the hero, reaching out with shaking hands but not actually touching her.

“Ah…such radiant aether. No wonder I could not withstand it.”

[Gair]

“So we're all acquainted one way or another 'an not killin' one another, even moreso,” Gair chimes in with the Sinner's “Wonderful” comment. Opting to stow his stick entirely now, negotiations are happening and a violent hand is scarcely needed, he thinks.

[Eligor]

“Well I’d love to cry and all but I need blood samples. And a container to put them in actually…also a volunteer to take the concoction.”

[Pipino]

“Oh, what, you mean to just… start straight away then?” Pipino asks with an eye wide with surprise behind her goggles.

[Eligor]

“Did you think I’d stall for time that is already limited?”

The Xaela stood up and spit before walking away, her interest in the situation apparently having worn off. Unrestrained now, the hero seemed to close the distance on the Sinner within a blink, teeth chattering down towards the Sinner as she leaned in close.

“Blood? Why?”

[Pipino]

Pipino simply nods her understanding. “How much is needed? And… What exactly is to be done with it?” she asks, clearly a bit wary of parting with her blood without some kind of assurance.

[Eligor]

The Sinner leaned back slowly despite the hero steadily leaning forward anyway, nearly crawling into her if not for her current lack of hands.

“More than a few drops for sure but not so much you will miss it. As for what is to be done…how about we skip explanations which only I can under—“

She was cut off abruptly by the hero falling over on top of her, thrashing about strangely before sitting up again.

“Profit,” growled the hero, before jumping back and staring pointedly at Gair.

[Luna]

At this point, everything was so out of her wheelhouse that Luna could scarcely hide her plain confusion at the whole ordeal, as much as she wanted to. “So her blood is the key to salvation then?” she asks, trying desperately to rid her face of any signs of her true feelings.

[Eligor]

“Not quite no,” the masked woman replied, still staring warily towards the hero now, “but it is the easiest method to obtain what I need to create the tool we need.”

[Pipino]

“And what tool is this?”

[Luna]

The knightess sighs. “You all must enjoy the sound of your own voices overly much. No one speaks plainly.” she muses to herself in frustration.

[Pipino]

“Well perhaps if you used yours more, you could think to ask questions to address your concerns instead of lamenting,” she snaps back in a testy way, clearly not in the mood for more sniping.

[Eligor]

“I speak plainly that none of you would get it. If you lot really need a class while the world burns by all means I’ll give it. Or I can get to work so you all can try to undo all of this mess with that fancy action most of you seem downright itching to get to.”

“Show of hands?”

[Gair]

“We're here, you said you can make the cure with this one hale and hearty,” Gair's chin jabs from the Sinner to the Hero. All in all, passive and calm himself given that the mission thus far has gone at a decent pace. “What more do you need from me?”

[Eligor]

“A container for the blood samples would be lovely.”

[Pipino]

She sighs and waves a hand for her to carry on, looking around the small hut for some type of containers, knowing nothing of what kind of vessel would be required.

[Gair]

“Any old flask will do until we get ahold of more?” Gair fishes out one from his pocket and unscrews it, downing the no-doubt foul contents. It's months old whiskey, or some foul adjacent concoction of liquor-like susbtance.

[Eligor]

“I’d love a sterilized lab, some vials, and time. We have none of those.”

She takes the bottle and observes it for a moment before nodding in gratitude.

“Now I just need some blood wrists ple—“

She suddenly stopped talking, staring at the hero’s stubs.

“…Arms please.”

[Gair]

“Procurement has become a specialty of mine in the last few winters…” Gair trails off, stepping out of the hut to make himself useful. Going from residence to residence to first knock, *then* invite himself in. He's forgotten how to ask nicely since his gentler days in Ul'dah, but he tries his best.

[Eligor]

“….”

She does not bother to stop Gair even as people protest in the distance, staring instead towards Pipino, then the hero who had yet to move. The hero simply stared her unblinking stare before repeating her words again.

“Profit.”

[Pipino]

Pipino looks to the hero, taking the chance at communicating. “…What do you mean by that?”

[Eligor]

The hero simply stares at the Sinner before suddenly snapping her head to face Pipino, her voice now colored with aggression in addition to her mechanical voice.

“Why should I? What I get? Pay.”

[Pipino]

“Well, what is it you would like?”

[Luna]

“You will find yourself lucky to yet live much less profiteer during this.” She snarls, this time emitting a sound rather than some sort of evidently offensive description.

[Eligor]

“Offer.”

[Pipino]

Pipino looks to Luna. “No, blood has value, more than people realize. She deserves compensation if she will not willingly give it.”

She turns her attention back to the hero. “I have not much I can offer aside from my skills as a machinist, unless you have a taste for art,” she says, half joking. “My only other thought is perhaps seeing about getting you a sturdier set of limbs.”

[Gair]

Having gotten into a minor scuffle with one of the residents over a vase that was holding a flower or some sort of pretty plant. A crash of glass and broken earthenware can be heard from outside.

“Seven hells, the flower is dead! We need this more than you!”

And the rugged man emerges back into the hut, having been only able to procure a few drinking glasses and a large vase with a broken top.

[Luna]

Luna lets out a groan much like a murderous sideshow clown, wiping her hand down her face at Gair. “I suppose I should consider it a boon that you have not changed altogether.”

[Eligor]

The Xaela returned soon after, clearly pissed.

“I can’t leave you idiots alone for half a damn bell before you do something stupid and shite! Why the gods damned hells are you fucking with my villagers like I won’t make you eat your own legs!?”

[Gair]

“Eat my legs after we have a cure,” Gair snorts in answer, kneeling down to set the arrangement of cups and singular broken vase down in front of the Sinner to start her work. “Unless you have a…what was it? Sterile lab and time.”

[Eligor]

“Eat my arse! Clearly nice and pleasant demeanor from me has given the wrong impression, so I’ll start over. I don’t care if it’s to stop the world from cracking in half, or that supplies round here are scarce. Touch my people again and I’ll gather some gods damned stone, pound it into dust and bricks, make some mortar, and build several fucking walls just so I can put your chocobo shite smelling arse through them! Fuck all four of you!”

She looks to the hero now and stomps closer, jingling the wooden arms that had been lost before roughly putting them back into place.

“And just tell Alkaid you’ll let her sleep you deaf fucks! That’s all the lazy little brat cares about!”

She lifts both her arms again and faces the group one by one, making sure to flip each of them off in sequence before turning to stomp away.

[Pipino]

Rolls her eye visibly, feeling like her treatment is completely unwarranted. She turns her attention back to the hero. “Well… Alkaid, yes? We shall let you sleep then.”

[Luna]

The knightess looks poised to speak but stops herself, not wishing to rile neither herself nor the Xaela. It is by the most tenuous fiber of her being that she does, however.

[Eligor]

Alkaid the hero turned and cocked her head, clicking her teeth curiously.

“When? Is loud. Always.”

[Gair]

Gair grunts and steps outside mid-rant, nobody quite able to discern the displeasure on his features, as, well. They were persistently that way. Curiously, he looks around for wet patches of ground and begins to…dig at them with his stick.

Some unseen twang of guilt weighs on him as he molds some crude earthenware by hand from what remains of the soil in the area. Sitting there in the dirt like a child at the end of the world. *What the fuck am I doing?*

[Pipino]

“Well… I am hoping it will be quiet once we are done and have a cure. Hopefully we all can stop having to fight for a time.” She sighs a bit, her stomach twisting as she dares to rely on impossible optimism.

[Gair]

Improvising a furnace to fire the clay in, Gair opts to just heat them with thaumaturgical fire. Cooking up a number of cups and one vaguely vase-length receptacle. They aren't pretty, but they'll hold water. He just stares at them now.

[Luna]

Luna stands there as if she were the executioner of one's will. Anything she would have to add would not be helpful and instead colored by desperate fury. Best just to let those better at dialogue speak.

[Eligor]

Alkaid continues to stare, before suddenly closing the distance on the Sinner again, extending an arm while blood dripped through the apparently hollowed out prosthetic arms. Despite there being no obvious mechanism to make them function, the fingers still twitched and jerked as if alive. The Sinner caught one quickly, catching the blood in Gair’s previously emptied bottle.

HERO’S BLOOD ACQUIRED

[Gair]

As this goes on, Gair makes for the residences he plundered. Opting to knock-and-run, setting the earthenware and retreating back to the heroes hut and wait outside on the ground. Clearly not wanting any form of adulation for his efforts.

[Eligor]

Apparently one of the houses he plundered had a little girl living there. Whatever he had destroyed had caused her to cry, but upon his somewhat crude repentance, he was rewarded with a snotty but happy smile before the little shadow child ran off to her end of the hut to celebrate.

VILLAGE ANIMOSITY REDUCED.

[Gair]

Gair grumbles and kicks rocks, prickly tsundere of a Sagolii cactus he is.

[Luna]

Looking down at the girls curiously, Luna asks of the Sinner. “Is that satisfactory? Have we obtained what is needed?”

[Eligor]

“Still need the other sample but otherwise yes. The rest will be on me.”

[Pipino]

“You are ready for mine then?” she asks, pulling off her right glove and reaching to her waist for a small utility knife.

[Eligor]

The Sinner nods, presenting the same bottle.

[Pipino]

She tucks the glove under her left arm, approaching and pushing the tip of the knife in the soft pad of her ring finger, squeezing several drops into the bottle. She does so unblinkingly.

[Eligor]

The Sinner sighs, looking the samples over while apparently working with her free hand. The blood in the bottle begins to glow and swirl about in the empty spaces of the filthy bottle.

“Finally,” she said, lifting the bottle for all to see, “the scales are rebalanced.”

[Luna]

Dutifully does Luna bend down, offering some thin ratty bandages for Pipino's wound.

[Eligor]

She reached up to remove her mask and place it down nearby.

[Pipino]

Pipino accepts the bandages and wraps it around her wound before sliding the glove back over it, figuring it would stay in place better that way.


Transformations

[Eligor]

||Underneath her mask were eyes that seemed to be strained far beyond imaginable limits, as if she had lived her entire life without blinking once. Rather than pupils, her eyes seemed a massive clot of blood and stretched veins. The entire upper half of her face was absolutely covered in scale like crystals that were red and white in color, while the center of her forehead sported a large and angular crystal not unlike the ones Gair had collected, or like the vast legions of the horde that had terrorized the world. With a blood curdling scream, she yanked the crystal free from her head before smashing it into the lip of Gair’s bottle, blatantly ignoring the immediate and serious blood flow gushing now from her head.||

[Pipino]

Pipino steps forward and upon seeing the flow of blood can think of nothing but attempting to immediately attempt to stem the flow. They need her, and it isn't like she is just going to let her bleed out before whatever work was finished. She awkwardly strides forward and attempts to put pressure on the wound with her just her gloved hand for now, ready to back off if she would be in the way.

[Luna]

Silently does Luna follow suit, placing her own right hand against Pipino's to help cover the wound. If only Lucatiel were here, I can not mend this.

[Eligor]

“Sparing you to see it will be my mercy.” She spoke without minding Luna or Pipino, the glowing blood in the bottle beginning to sparkle and hum with energy now.

“Hundreds, thousands, millions of activities being carried out at once. All that data constantly burned into my mind. So much all the time. So endless. Flesh is not meant to process all of that data. So mine fails when the traffic is particularly bad.”

“But my spite was once again underestimated. Such a gift, to hand me the means to undo this madness!”

She raised her head to look at no one in particular.

“An undying body. One that will regenerate even once abused, tortured…torn apart.”

“You’ll want to find more containers for what comes after.”

She lifts the bottle again, gulping slowly as she jingles it. For a moment, she seemed ready to launch it towards the floor.

[Pipino]

Pipino screws up her face for a moment as she watches her gaze at it and makes a move to slide her hand out from Luna's and makes to snatch for the bottle, something in the words she uttered and the way she was gazing at it unsettling her. “Those words sound not like ones of a curative nature!”

[Eligor]

The Sinner has a grip on the bottle far stronger than anything she had shown prior, as if it were her last final treasure and the source of every evil in the world all at once. Carefully she took the bottle to her lips and downed the contents, including her own crystal which protruded painfully in her throat even as it slid down visibly from the outside.

The Sinner’s eyes began to glow and cry blood in luminescent streams down her cheeks. Something was happening.

[Pipino]

Pipino steps back from the woman instinctively and draws her weapon as she watches, an unsettling feeling gnawing away in the pit of her stomach. She is clearly torn between just wanting to end the woman for fear she would become too powerful, and i her carry on in case it could lead to some kind of salvation. She choses the latter option.

[Luna]

Instinctively does Luna step in front of Pipino, putting herself between the Eorzean Exorcist Girl and her old companion. The aether hums around her arm, forming a shield down where it hangs, covering her lower body and Pipino.

[Gair]

The sounds of yelling and screaming rouse Gair to stand, drawn from his thoughtful stupor to peer inside and stare. The sight of the crystals turn his countenance from sour to outright furious, but he chooses to not act on it and slams the huts door shut once more. Opting to go for a walk on the perimeter of Fallgourd Float.

[Eligor]

Bloody and fresh looking voidsent like wings painfully and audibly rip their way out of the Sinner’s back, and her skin slowly fades from it’s deathly pale to a deep obsidian in fact, it seems that her skin seems to have taken on a crystalline like quality all its own, as her flesh began to reflect light around her. Finally, long and glowing claws burst from her fingertips in bloody fashion, radiating with aether. She was glorious and horrifying. Like seeing a daemon being born before ones eyes. She was….suddenly collapsed on the floor in a puddle of her own glowing blood, screaming in agony.

[Luna]

Gauntleted hand finds its way to the hilt of her blade as Luna reacts to the strange display. Though she doesn't immediately draw, just being at the ready, still between the creature and Pipino.

[Pipino]

Pipino watches the scene in abject horror, only repulsion and conflict in her mind. Was this supposed to happen? Should she try and put her out of her misery? One action or the other could change the tide and the dilemma plagues her. She steps back, weapon drawn, and decides to wait, seeing what will come of this.

[Eligor]

After a while the woman stands again, still very clearly in pain and suffering from the aftereffects of whatever she had done to herself. She looks off to the side briefly, although her glowing eyes made it impossible to tell exactly just what she was staring at before looking for her old cane to lean on, a triumphant smile creeping across her features despite her clearly still being in agony.

“It's….as done as its going to be.”

[Pipino]

Pipino gazes at the woman, clearly still on her guard. “And now this is the point where you tell us precisely how this is going to lead to all you told us it would - a reversal, a cure.”

[Luna]

Luna steps aside, the aether still humming around her arm but no longer taking the form of a shield. She looks between Pipino and the warped Sinner silently, listening.

[Gair]

Gair returns to the shack with a rather large and voluminous robe in hand, from the doorway he casts it toward the Sinner's feet. Glaring daggers at this veritable daemon that has been birthed by their efforts. Making certain to loom in the entrance to prevent any would-be sudden intrusions. “Coverin' up would be prudent, if you don't want the village to make a game of turnin' your skull to mush with the biggest rock they can find.”

[Eligor]

“Past that point sadly,” she replied, still leaning heavily on her stick before turning to Pipino and shrugging. “I’ve already told you there’s no cure. What’s happened is not a sickness, but is instead like a…let us call it an evolution. People are evolving, but deep within what we will call the instruction manual for this evolution is obedience. Subservience. And for those even weaker of mind, the liberation from weakness and connection to, well…everyone at once is enough to cause a form of madness. “

She displays her body now, flapping her new wings cautiously. Every movement seemed to bring her pain.

“But I’ve broken the rules. Rather than just the select few who are resistant, we should even be able to retrieve the minds of those who have fallen. We can turn the dark ones own forces back to us. We can reclaim everything!”

[Luna]

“Stow this nonsense about such predetermined evolution. You sound more as one who wishes to convince others to join their cult then one who is explaining the facts.” Luna protests, looking at the woman. “That we may yet save those afflicted is the only reason I would aid you in such madness, thou art fortuitous. A noble cause drives my blade.”

[Eligor]

“I spend all my time explaining to you all that explaining is meaningless because you would not like or understand it. Now I finally deem to calm down and teach as asked and suddenly I need to stop it. Whatever—you all pick where you are going next.”

[Pipino]

“'You all' is a little strong,” she says, giving Luna a look of irritation. “I for one would still like to understand the implications of what we are experiencing. How do you intend to turn everyone afflicted against the Dark One? I hope it is simply not changing the reins of control from one Master to another.”

[Eligor]

“I’d certainly like that, but no. My surviving this transformation was already beyond my expectation. But yes, I can explain hopefully enough to satisfy without overmuch confusion.”

“I told you all that I was there when the dark one appeared. Without walking through the whole story again, I was probably the first amongst what you think of as infected. I could not be turned thanks to my self improvements making my mind a natural impediment of sorts to the method, but this body was another matter entirely. Further, it is quite undying. That was part of the ideal. Sparing me to see what was wrought.”

“This body cannot be destroyed unless it is erased. And now the blood of this body can undo the shackles binding the minds of the corrupted. Had we more time, resources, and manpower we could improve it but for now…this is it.”

“To specify, the corruption is not the problem, it is the compulsion that comes along with it. The Dark One’s aether has been pumped into the lifestream like a virus, which facilitates the turn. Keep in mind the fundamental differences between sickness of the body and sickness of the spirit here, as it will help you organize how this corruption works.”

“Evolution is not predetermined as our friend here theorizes, but instead is a multi-parallel response to the individual, the dark one, and outside stimuli. Some people might grow to be capable destroying walls for example. Others grow to improve cooperation. I want to describe it as a hive mind in function, but there are clear instances of individualism playing a key role in the entirety of the process. This means that rather than the aether corrupting simply the body to obey, it has instead corrupted the minds of the afflicted. In its own way, those who are naturally resistant to the change have the chance to retain some greater functions of the self, while others seem to be regulated to—“

The woman cuts herself off now, sensing she was going into a tangent out of habit.

“In short, think of minds as under an aetheric lock of sorts. My aether—and by extension my blood—currently act as a key.”

“The best part being that Unless I’m completely obliterated, there is nothing that can be done to stop it! We have just won! With that out of the way, that brings me back to my original statement. You all can choose wherever to go next if you want to run off and die. You’ve done your part. The world is saved.”

She picks up the robe Gair provided, shaking it off a bit.

[Pipino]

“Those infected… Will they be turned back to our side through a mass action or… Or is it on an individual basis? What… What do you have to do to unlock it?”

[Eligor]

“…..My aether. Or something that carries it, like my blood. Exposure should facilitate the process so…yeah. I wasnt planning on being around after this point so I figured it'd be your problem really. I guess being close to me could do it, but being exposed to something with my aether also should be able to work.”

“….All things considered, I think it would be better to pass it on to other people first. Once someone gets exposed to the key, they should in turn also be able to bring others back to us.”

“Any other questions?”

[Gair]

After a long moment of listening to the exchange between Pipino, Luna and the Sinner. Gair peers outside of the hut and looks southward, brows knit together in thought. “If the Dark One's blood has infected the lifestream…ain't there a sort of tree or grove that's close to it in the Twelveswood?” He queries, uncertain about the terrain himself. “I'd say removing the corruption, root 'an stem would do us well. Not to mention…” His gaze flits back to the Sinner and shakes his head at her. “There ain't no assurances they don't have a means to destroy you, so I ain't aimin' to go die just yet.”

[Eligor]

“What? That’s one of the…..actually, that’s a fairly intelligent idea. I think the main problem would be dispersal. I don’t know how the dark one manages to keep his corruption persistent but something I am sure of is that without the proper resistance smaller signals get washed out in the lifestream.”

“Since the origin of this separate signal is me, I’m not sure how it would remain intact unless….ah.”

She sighs, crossing her arms now.

“Do you intend to force me into it directly?”

[Luna]

There is a slight spark in Luna's eye at Gair's idea. “We shall raze the Twelveswood this day then.” she says, almost sounding as if there was a shred of excitement to it.

“The elementals guard the Twelveswood and yet they could not even watch guardian over an abandoned little girl. No matter.” she adds.

[Eligor]

“What little girl?”

[Luna]

The woman frowns. “A scared young girl bereft of family. Lost to the world and found by a monster.” she says, clearly a bit reticent to expound.

[Eligor]

“And based on what our failed pilot has said, you now believe burning the forest down is the solution to the current plight?”

[Luna]

“I do not care. If he says we must remove the cause of the corruption, and the source is that Twelve-forsaken overgrown tree… It makes it quite simple.”

[Eligor]

“Have you not cleaned your ears in the past several years? When did a tree become the source of the corruption!?”

“He’s referring to the fact that the Twelveswood has font locations that are especially close to the lifestream, much like and in some cases literally being leylines. This allows for especially complex interactions with said lifestream that are not possible in many other places. In fact, the next closest place where we could do something like this would be in Mor Dhona, which is arguably currently the most dangerous place in the world!”

She turns towards Gair again, arms still crossed.

“So what was your plan?”

[Gair]

Patient enough to listen in between Luna and the Sinner, he explains to the former. “This is all nearly beyond me, but, I'm more meanin' the lifestream than the wood itself. Maybe a fire would help clear a path, but maybe quick'n quiet might do us better for the moment.” He bares a rueful grin toward the Sinner now and shrugs at her, the idea itself rather off the cuff and a shot in the dark. “Either directly, so you might drown Him out 'an proliferate through the land. Quicker than merely spreading like a pox, don'cha think? Or…we erect our own throne?” He's clearly trying to think through the idea. “At the least, bein' at such a crossroads of power is to our advantage.”

[Eligor]

“You should know that while in the long term using this solution would free the world, it is almost the same as outright abandoning all those currently corrupted already. What you propose is like purifying a tainted lake, but that does not save the poisoned flora and fauna around it.”

[Pipino]

“Abandoning them is not an option,” Pipino pipes up resolutely after listening to the discussion, one she found resting just a bit over her head even through all these years. “I.. I am afraid I cannot think of some other way unless it were possible to fly over the land and sprinkle magic dust on everyone,” she says with a frustrated sigh.

[Eligor]

“So you want both then.”

“Well I can think of two methods that might work in that case.”

[Pipino]

“Yes, I do. If it is at all possible. What are your ideas?”

[Eligor]

“First is simply….turning people slowly over time. There’s a greater chance we won’t be around to see it end but the seeds will certainly be higher that what has been started here won’t be stopped.”

“The second…we try to overpower the dark one directly.”

“In case it’s somehow not already clear the second option has a high chance of failure.”

[Pipino]

Pipino sighs and runs a hand through her bangs, clearly a bit torn. “And it would take long enough that battles still need to take place - plenty of people who could otherwise be saved will continue following that thing's instructions and be killed. It is… difficult to return to the old way of doing things when you know there is way out of it.”

[Eligor]

“Far as I’m concerned I’m already dead in any of these scenarios so I’ll leave it to you three what you want to do. I’ll have my revenge either way.”

[Gair]

Gair bobs his head in a nod, clearly weighing the options. “Is it possible the Dark One would feel us if we went to the center of the Shroud, possibly…send some of his strongest agents our way? I've an idea that might give us the edge on the latter of our two options.”

“That is, if he fears being expunged from the lifestream.”

[Eligor]

The Sinner simply looked to Pipino.

“That idea being?”

[Gair]

“Tamper with the Lifestream somehow, make him feel as if we are *about* to do something to end his reign. Albeit clumsily and obviously, so a force is sent our way…say, all the might of someone desperate to survive,” Gair begins, gesturing vaguely with a gauntleted hand. “Then we convert the lot of them right there, enhanced and evolved- as you've said. Then march on the tower with our force in tow.”

[Eligor]

“Do you think it will be enough?”

[Pipino]

Pipino looks away from the Sinner's gaze, crossing her arms. “ Perhaps not… but it is a promising idea if it works. I think he would likely be aware of us, at any rate. How much of a threat he thinks we are though, that is uncertain. His reach is so expansive, I wonder if he would even blink to know we were attempting something.”

[Eligor]

“What do you all think?”

[Luna]

“The end goal is the same, it matters not what the means are to me.”

[Gair]

Gair drums his thumb on the hook of his crook and shrugs. “I can spitball courses of action for a sennight if you want. If we wanted a surefire way to expunge him long term, we could each take some of the Sinners blood and quit for the cardinal winds. A pilgrimage, if you will.”

Gair looks toward Luna to ask. “If you lay no claim'ta preference, then will you agree to whatever course Pipino and I decide?” Now at Pipino he directs his attention. “I think we're too soon to decide between quick and risky, or slow and steady. Don't you? We've yet to see the process, or confirm it even works.”

[Luna]

Luna nods at the man. “Indeed I shall. I fight to stay the dark, you must only needs direct the light of my blade.”

[Pipino]

Pipino nods. “Yes… If one of the options means that there will a lot of time before things are resolved, I do not see why we cannot take our time making a decision as to which course we should follow.” She pauses a moment. “Would A'erina be able to be turned to our side, I wonder… and… and perhaps by extension, the beasts under her control? I am not exactly sure as to the nature of her corruption.”

[Eligor]

“Who?”

[Pipino]

“The Miqo'te from earlier who was controlling the wood creatures.”

[Eligor]

“The hero?”

[Pipino] “No, the one who was fighting the hero.”

[Eligor]

“….Don’t recall. Tell me more about them.”

[Pipino]

“She said that she was dead. She was blown up by a bomb. Her body looks quite awful - cracks in her body with aether flowing out of them. She said the Dark One sustains her. And she has the ability to control the corrupted creatures within the wood as if they were her pets.”

[Eligor]

“Think she’s willing then?”

[Gair]

“Even if she ain't, if she's robbed of her connection. The Dark One's army would set on her like anyone else.”

[Eligor]

“Not necessarily true.”

“…Hmm…if only we still had aetherites…”

[Pipino]

“By taking on the Dark One directly, what did you have in mind? I hardly think just walking up to him and and shooting him would do much for us.”

[Eligor]

“If we assume the same rules that apply to the horde also have applied to the dark one, I’d say whatever we imagine is likely insufficient.”

[Pipino]

She sighs and stays silent for a moment, reckoning with something internally. She finally speaks up. “Assuredness is more important. Success is more valuable than shirt term triumphs, especially when the risks are so high. I… would rather set a foundation to end this that cannot be reversed.”


The Grand Conclusion

[Eligor]

The group ultimately decided to sacrifice the Sinner. By dispersing her essence into the lifestream, they made certain that no matter the route THEY took, the future would be secured. The Dark One had no means to gain more followers, and those that would be born in the future would be immune to his corruption. Further, even so much as travelling through the aether would allow for one to be cleansed, further chokeholding the Dark One and its forces. The world was saved and, in time, its inhabitants would be as well.
Taking the attack on Ishgard as an opportunity to bring yet more good to the many, Luna, Pipino, and Gair ultimately decided to directly attack the Dark One's seat of power: Mor Dhona. The plan was simple, end the dark one while his forces crush Ishgard, and there are no more invasions. No need for waiting on the future. What they found however was nothing short of despair. They were confronted by none other than a corrupted Aymeric, and the legion of elite defenders at his command. The three made their attempt to break through. Right as hope seemed lost however Raziel appeared, bloody and broken from the events that unfolded at Ishgard–but more importantly, enraged beyond her limits. She razed the battlefield, opening a way into the Crystal Tower for the group. She was not able to follow however, as Raziel was not alone: She had brought A'erina and her underlings along with her in pursuit. The group was forced to leave her behind while she fought off more of the horde. She was ultimately torn apart.
Unsurprisingly, within the Tower was not a more hopeful story. Heat from lava and fire sapped away at what little strength the group had managed to scramble for themselves, and within were still yet more hordes of the corrupted. Unlike outside however, the hordes within seemed different and precious. Some were suspended in tubes while others seemed newly born and frail. The group made an effort to destroy all as they ascended. Soon enough however A'erina caught up with the group again, and again the group found themselves blocked off from advancing, and so Luna made the decision for them to leave her behind. Using her aetheric shield to hold off the advancing horde by expanding it further outward, she held off the horde until she felt herself falter and, in a final act of heroism, pushed A'erina and as many of her horde as she could manage with her off of the platform and into the lava nearby. Unfortunately for her however, A'erina was one of the Dark One's specially made corrupted, and the manner in which she had changed over the years in particular made her immune to high heat and attacks that utilize it. With what remained of her now mostly decimated forces, A'erina once again pursued Pipino and Gair.
The two had made it to what could be considered the throneroom in the end, battered and bloody from yet more minor scuffles on the way up the tower, but found themselves encountered once again by their fallen friend. Parading what was left of Luna's bones to taunt them, the group engaged yet again. A'erina was finally feeling the weight of her constant battles as well however, and while the Dark One was present, they did not seem interested in lifting so much as a finger at the spectacle. Even more importantly, as they fought, Pipino began to feel even more off, like something was wrong. The grand secret she had kept was that Pipino herself was infected, but due to it's mostly dormant nature, had been using it to keep herself ahead of the horde. A particular ability that seemed to fail once she was summoned with the group in the floating Sanctuary. This was an ability that was suddenly back and worsening from the moment they entered the Tower. Unable to risk being of harm or hinder to Gair, she informed him rather briefly before jumping into the fray, overheating her firearm and erasing the rest of A'erina's underlings. Now missing most of her arm however thanks to the subsequent explosion, Pipino collapsed soon after, now burning and bleeding out on the floor as Gair and A'erina made ready to kill each other.
As it happens, A'erina's immunity to heat was quite a boon to her. Unfortunately for her however, the unkind years had made Gair equally immune to the fear of death. His goal before him now and A'erina still having enough strength to overpower him, he sacrificed his forearm as a feint, using his new abilities to form a blade from the wound–ultimately beheading his fallen cousin.
It was now Gair with the Dark One, but broken and beaten as he was, the outcome of the fight was always obvious. Each and every attack Gair attempted was repelled, deflected, and countered. Blow after blow, and failure after failure, Gair continued to stand as if possessed by his single-minded wrath. It was not Gair's final charge however that drew blood, but a spear made from his blood. Without his input. Pipino was dead, but whatever was in her eye was still very much alive. Gair's blood had come in contact with a drug years prior and, unbeknownst to him, had been growing steadily. Flowing through him without aim or command. In the moment of the Dark One's hubris, it was commanded to burst from his chest, striking the Dark one in the heart as well.
The group had fallen, but in their own way they managed to succeed. Despite it costing their lives, the had done irreparable damage to the Dark One and the horde. They forced the Dark One to go into stasis to heal, and his most powerful underlings were now lost. When he emerged, he would not find a world ready to conquer, but a future in which he was the prey. The one whom would be wiped out by the very world he set out to bring to heel.

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