"I," announced the older woman, "am going to go tend to Mr Octopus and maybe put some soup on. I assume you're inviting yourself, metalman."
She bustled off before he could answer, but not before he got a glimpse of Markath's quarry and the subject of his own very tenuous, ambiguous, not entirely confirmed or legal dealing. It stared at him from the water. He had little compunction about staring back, and with a very great deal of curiosity.
Its half lidded eyes, apparently by nature rather than mood inclination, at first seemed to be utterly black, like in tone to coal or those of a doll; but on better inspection, the limpid orbs had the aural rainbow patterns of oil on the water and sparkling more fiercely than melting snow on a sunny spring morning, surrounded by darkness like that of its ink. They were strikingly beautiful in a truly bizarre manner. Which could just as easily describe many of the octopus' other features, in truth.
Its head was a rather deep maroon, but the tones faded outside the initial bulbous mass into a warm series of crimson and orange tones that were tipped, oddly, with bright cyan tones along the creature's length. Rather than separate massive tendrils, as he had at first expected from the story he had been told, it seemed to have a sort of skirt about its body made of interwoven ones in a rather fetching skein. Its actual limbs didn't appear from under the deceiving shroud until it had looked away, but when they did, he knew entirely well that Markath had not exaggerated.
The tentacle that waved at him, whether in greeting or threat he could not quite tell, was quite as thick as his torso, and he knew without the slightest doubt that he would never be able to kill such a thing on his own without divine assistance. Then it slipped back under the waters and trailed deeper into the grottoes after the woman. Its alien movements, foreign and fantastically coordinated, kept him from questioning after its voice until it was far out of what he assumed earshot to be.
Myles had not had any hint it would be so big in here when he offered to scout.
Not entirely eager to head out into the night winds again without a decent torch or cloak, particularly after the strange warmth and homeliness of this 'Mr Octopus' grotto, he paused on the threshold to try to eke more answers out of the one the older voice had called 'the girl'. In his defense, he thought, it was sure to sleet out there soon, and the band was safely ensconced in a farmstead, whereas he would be suffering in the weather if he did return to them. And he was not expected back for a good time of scouting- which, if his deal with the pair carried through, would not be required after all. But even so. So, he started up with, "You must be well traveled-"
"Must we?" came the almost now expected sardonic answer without explanation from the shrouded figure that had remained, her arms folding in the robes. The young voice had more of a snarl to it than he had at first placed now. It sent a shiver unrelated to the weather or their behavior down his spine. "Curious."
"More traveled than a squire at an abbey in a northland island at any rate," he amended, and the response this time was an odd sort of chortling before she extended enough mercy to put her humor into words.
"One would certainly have to be. Do you bleed green, Eustace?" she asked mildly, and he felt a twinge of injured pride before reminding himself sternly of his beliefs and the dictates of his religious inclination. There was not to be pride of the self. The stopgap between this and registering that she'd called him the wrong name was quite enough time for the previously lounging and relaxed individual in question to make it all the way across the room to hover uncomfortably close over him in a way that made his hair stand on end.
He could feel warm breath with very strange aftertones on his skin. The smell was not... welcome. Fetid, more than it should have been, if initially sweet. Like a field of vanilla and poppies, but with raw meat savaged out uncleanly and dumped amid the blossoms.
"Why Eustace? That's not my name," he braved despite increasing terror and the urge to crawl back away on his hands and knees from her, "though what is yours?"
"Eustace is because you didn't give me your name," she replied primly and flicked his nose in an overly familiar way that stung a great deal, and then laughed away again after adding, "because, it rhymes with 'Useless' so well."
"My name is Moran," he began. His armor did nothing against her reaction. Nor did his training. It did at least anger him enough to stop quivering, though the urge to lash back at her did not do him any credit in his own opinion. Myles juggled the idea of throwing his axe into her face and running to his Order again to slay the octopus and, later, if God reallllly demanded it, plead for clemency and forgiveness (though the angry young man imagined the Father would surely understand)- but, with so much to gain and the immediate shame at even thinking such things, even of possible witches, he stayed still and tried not to react, instead.
"MORON?!" she screeched ecstatically, throwing up her hands and all but beginning to jig for all the excitable movement she generated, and he instantly knew the taste of regret all that much better. "Oh that's ever so much better, young master moron! Aahaahahahaaa, hehhaaa, it explains so much!"
"Moe-rahn, not moor-on," he tried, but the laughter just got louder before stilling into appeased quiet. "Fair trade time. What is yours, ink smuggler?"
"Smuggler? This is a legitimate job for the southlands, you git," she answered in entirely serious and possibly actually honest tones. "Mr Octopus is a willing citizen. He can't pay taxes in the same way as other folks, so he does what he can, and his friends are happy to help him."
"We're not in the southlands. We're not even on the mainland at all," Moran returned, and gestured to her garb. "Then there's the disguises and all of that... -and your refusal to give any straight information at all..."
There came a scoffing noise and low growl before she went on an exceedingly long rant that blistered the stone and rung in his ears long after she was done, for paragraph on paragraph onward.
"The disguises are because the mother likes her dramatic entrances and it helps me to blend in a good bit more often than not. The information, well, you may go lick a frozen pipe for all the good being a snarling child that thinks yelping and yowling will get him treats will do you, little boy.
"Think about this from my perspective, would you? Here comes an armored stranger, just when you find another one a lot like him dead, and someone you know to be a good fellow hiding out of sight and sobbing in fear in a corner in his -own home- that he had no choice and they tried to hurt him. This stranger is also trying to kill your friend, for very basic financial causes, doesn't even think of him as a person while he's intending to gut him and rip out what he wants from his hide. He only agrees to so much as think about the possibility of doing something else for what amounts to a bribe! Being let in on what the poor tentacle-inclined fellow already does.
"You tell me if you'd want to be chummy if it was a girl of yours and some yellow fellow in a witchy hat was trying to take her heart or something. Or if the likes of a monster was chewing at their guts. Go on! Go on, tell me," she burst out, and he would have conceded the point if her breath hadn't knocked him flat and she wasn't rather larger than she had been moments before.
A finger quite the breadth of his head batted his face to look one way and then the other as the fumes of its breath sapped the energy from his limbs and continued in hard words. "If you must know, I know all about your sorts' knightly antics, that antique little order religious business of yours, all kinds of rumors and all kinds of secrets. Matter of fact, here's one you don't know! You lot are squatting in my summer castle. Two? The mother is an exorcist, you stupid lackstrip yellowbelly. And three for generosity's sake? I was the local ogre before I got made into a tax collector.
"I am Ghirma."
"... do you mean ogress?" he tried to process all of this weakly, and the figure once again seemed to take it with some amusement, snorting. Enough to stop seeming in danger of goring him on those very large and cruel looking nails and the horns on its barely visible massive head. Down dwindled Ghirma and put the rags, now torn, over itself once more, but not before the grayish purple skin and the green highlights had forever embedded themselves in his memory.
Myles Moran was increasingly glad that he had not tried violence as a first solution even as the fear sweat in his smallclothes lent him greater shame that it had been a contemplated one.
"Oh, my, I'll have to tell the mother that she's a humaness. That should be worth getting a face out of her. Hehhhhh.... No, boy, I'm not an ogress. That's a term you lot use to make other people less than you, for distinctions and for downplay. I am a female ogre. Hell, some might even call me an ogre woman!" Ghirma chortled, and spun around at the somewhat human height she'd been when he had first met the pair. "Although some call me a girl instead, who I will not mention politely to company, whether the company is polite or not!"
"Why did you only threaten me with a dagger if you are an ogre? I would expect you to be eating my spleen by now," the squire asked rather more meekly, and she bristled before slapping his face. It stung, if not nearly so much as her true form's talons would have. Given it would have shaved skin from bones and probably pulverized the latter, and all of that.
"How dare you!" she sniffled, and growled in a manner that made his helmet fall off and the leather of his under-chain armor shrivel tightly about him. "How dare you even suggest it? I'll have you know I only eat up pretty people, moron, and you definitely don't qualify. Haven't you ever heard the phrase 'you are what you eat'? Stupid little mugger, coming in here and making demands and pretending he's worth breakfast..."
Moran had been raised to work with a chaste mindset and had never had cause to evaluate his appearance's worth in any such regard, but it was fairly odd hearing her rant anyway. He was rapidly learning that she was very long winded. Very, long, winded.
"You're too pale, moron," she paced around him, poking at will. Knowing what she was, this was less annoying by far, now. So much better than teeth. "Go off to Ancet or Bigal, hell, all the way down to Nam or Heliopolis, get some damn sun in your skin, maybe you'd go decently with eggs. Get some real beard instead of these scraggly sand colored little sad strips," and she looked half ready to rip one out, though his hand inching toward his own axe appeared to dissuade more physical abuse for now, thankfully.
"The gray eyes are nice, but trim those eyebrows better. There's no helping the nose, I'm afraid, it's entirely too short and broad for those cheekbones. The mouth is too chapped and dry, I daresay you're missing... two teeth, is it, on the left side? And you're entirely devoid of anything fun to hold onto, skinnyboy. How you intend to fight in those long battles of yours without any meat for oxygen is beyond me, but I don't do bones by themselves, it's no kind of treat at all.
"You might be alright as a rangy sort if you had a different profession," she admitted finally, with an unsettling clack of teeth, "if, and I do mean if, you had more years on you and better experiences, but you're a pretty pisspoor baby knight, Moran. I don't think I'd be the only one declining your spleen politely. Mmmmnh... I've probably had worse. Maybe. If we scarred up a dramatic mark here, maybe broke that nose just a bit here to be striking instead of disfiguring, yeah, you might have a shot-"
"I would rather not be eaten, thank you all the same," he breathed shakily, and she gave a lopsided grin that he could see quite well as she lowered the hood.
"I suppose if I'm being honest that most Ogres would eat you for the hell of it," she shrugged to herself and stuck her tongue out. "The grosser and messier, the better, too. Your bones for bread and your guts for garters, eyeballs in the stew and your face ground on cheese as they squeezed the pulp out of your arm and fried it with banana rind... heh. Why waste the skull? Could make headcheese out of it to go with it. We're practical sorts."
"But I am trying for more classy standards than the lummoxes that knock over castles with their crossbows and make candles from their earwax, thank you -very- much. I happen to like being on the right side of the law. You can save slug dinners and chewing squeaky, inquisitive little boys in metal to the green oafs on the other side of the archipelago," she finished, and tapped her nose with a kerchief.
Her diet appeared not to be lying to her insofar as far as the 'are what eat' portions were concerned. The Ogre's human form was very fair, herself, even if the creature's behavior and demeanor weren't. Although- admission of being a maneating monster aside, which, in a strange and confoundingly confusing way, really seemed like it should be a bigger issue than she was making of it and something someone like him would normally be trying to smite her for- from her perspective, she really was being entirely more than fair as regards the entirety of the situation. Where to distinguish myth from reality was going to be difficult if these things constituted people, real people, one had to interact with, here.
The brunette looked very much human, smelled it in a way he hadn't been quite aware of in more innocent yesterdays, moved like it. She palmed and showed the dagger again as he imagined a lady might, though he hadn't worked with enough Sisters in the order to know well. Her own features seemed the sort that might go on a statue in an attempt to preserve them to the everlasting, though it would probably be a vain effort, and her rather large brown eyes were laughing quite as constantly as her mouth when she wasn't on a venting rage.
She might well have been a great beauty if she hadn't had more muscle tone than one generally expected from a social creature and somewhat alarming teeth of her own, sharp in one moment, and like great grindstones in the next. Too large for the mouth or head containing them, really.
Ghira sat and the robes indicated that the tax collector was crossing her legs. "Well then. We've got that out of the way, moron. What'd you want to know about the news, now?"
Setting his axe on his lap in easy reach and placing himself out of the same as regards to her, Myles Moran asked, "Anything. I don't hear much out here. No one does..."
"Where to begin?" she asked herself, then clapped her hands. "Well, firstly, world news, I suppose. Yagren Njuilchao got maimed and almost executed recently. The World Gov- you'd know them as the ones that run the mainland and a lot of the islands south of its northmost shores, I expect- hired Tiberius Morstrife to take him in despite the bounties on that merc's head. So he and an unknown elfy type go in alone, against the Slayer and Slaver himself, and they actually pull it off. The man who Breaks was struck down after a long battle and they took his arm clean off before dragging him back in chains."
Unfamiliar with the articles of her report, he frowned at her apparent expectation that he -should- know, and opened up his mouth to ask. "Who is this man that was almost executed again, and why did you say it like that? Is there anything special about this .... mercenary? Is that what merc means? Or did you say murk?"
"Yagren. You don't know Yagren? You live up here, and you don't know- Yaag like stag, ren like yin? Oh, sweet Sargon, if I have to explain every name in the headlines we're going to be here for days. Everyone knows these things. What do they teach you about the world you live in at that cloister, anyway?" she responded, and shook her head. "Nevermind. If you don't know about threats like that it can't be worth knowing. Poor, poor moron. No wonder Captain Redscales has your Order of Lazarus up in Huukleburgh besieged."
The words he did take significance from made this an entirely more dramatic and world shifting announcement than the previous one she'd clearly cared about more. "WHAT?"
"Oh, you didn't hear? That pirate bard that manipulates nations and plunders cities is at your door just across the big water from here," Ghira answered, and took a swig of a drink. "It's a bad time to be a WorldGov tax collector up here trying to make an honest living. So far there haven't actually been any casualties, but that's because the damn dragon's been converting all the militia and reinforcements that come out to play with his armada over to his side with sweet words and honeyed spellcraft. Musics of the mind and all that malarky. From the knights, though, he demanded a surrender, a ransom, or a wholesale slaughter. Apparently he was going to leave it at the first two options but took offense when a priest began lecturing him on morality. So, he says, to be fair, they need time to get something valuable to him, and he lets out trios of knights in every direction to the wind. Because, and I quote, as I heard it, 'It makes it a better story that way, do you not think, my dear ladies and gentlemen?' Frankly, he's quite as bad as Yagren and vice versa, but they're two different shades of nasty."
"B- but," he tried to process, and recalled that Markath had only discussed the ink's value to religious institutions and places of the mind, not actually claimed that his Order meant to keep it. A spellcasting bard with as much power as she implied would surely need quite a lot of the stuff to work scoresheets with. Which meant that if he spared Mr Octopus for being a person, he might just condemn his Brothers and Sisters in the other Order to death. "Why?"
"Why? Why anything, really. Why did the Jarl of Draam Harbor way up north even from here send an Vikingar fleet against the WorldGov again? Some people say it was to let Yagren escape in the confusion again because of old favors and shared kin. Some say it was to try to take the north shores of the mainland herself. Some say it was something Razaan doctored to get both big powers out of his way while he did this, and I wouldn't put it past the lizard to let his enemies kill themselves for him.
"Whatever the reason, the Jarl did send that fleet, and a lot of good folk in the WorldGov Fifth Fleet died because of repelling it. Very, very recently. If it weren't for the war golem prototypes our Navy has been developing, the Rangers even say that a band of those Norsemen might have gotten back alive with plunder after a foray they made into the continent. Fortunately, almost all hands were lost, and their ships are all scrap in the yards now.
"There were survivors we couldn't track... but there's only two of them, viking or not, they say. And the Jarl is definitely not one of them. It was a crushing blow to his people when they learned the outcome, and the other five are in Moot right now deciding who his successor is to be. He didn't leave any family or heirs. It seems he fully expected to be alive laughing at the ramparts of Fort Toleran by now, not float headless in the muck."
He found it very hard to share her pleasure at this concept. In part because of the tragedy and scale, in part because he was still reeling from the news of assault on church lands, in part because now he had no idea what he was going to do, and in part because he knew nothing about any of the players in this bizarre political conflict.
She went on talking, oblivious to the fact he was barely registering the new words for the old ones. "Moneio repelled an attack by savages recently, and apparently the cheerful young pair of women that popped up there house and all last year had a little one somehow. Local wizards are still trying to copy 'how' and 'why' without intruding too much. The Lady Gray's aegis is over the whole place, of course, but I get the feeling that she's particularly keen on keeping that little family safe.
"A young man named Maric has been hunting up and down the breadth of the entire Pangaea for his own missing girl, supposedly, working with anyone that will help. She went missing, then the temple she was apparently sequestered in went missing, then half his folks helping did too. It's a wonder he's not crazy.
"There was an alien landing in the Hjinn mountains just outside Yimmenfall, though they tried to cover that up as best they could. Supposedly the Malachai thing got its ship working again despite the Sky Elves' attempts to study it for the space program, and escaped with a local criminal known as the Revanent. Most people say it's just a story, but we know for sure there are other worlds, or people like you wouldn't keep turning up out of portals. That they could come out of the sky isn't too big a stretch after that.
"Emmateyr Trost started the rebuilding of Ancintine, after all these years. She's given her remaining funding from previous government grants for biological theory and applied sciences to the reconstruction, and her whole village is working with the Dwarves and whatall. I have no idea if the Norsemen are going to try to torch it midway to preserve the reputation, or if they'll get behind the idea, but the WorldGov doesn't like the thought of their pet Giant geneticist going off and possibly getting herself in trouble on a mercy mission.
"Khan Caetzyr put a whole city to the sword recently. Carved that poor guard Captain's face clean off when she was trying to give a hello. I don't think they're in the mood for diplomacy anymore."
She went on, but he passed out.
"-didn't do anythi-" droned a half heard voice in the darkness. "Not my-"