It was dirty inside the inn, due in part to the countless travellers that frequented it while passing through. Mud and dirt had been ground into the wooden floor. A thick layer of dust coated most surfaces, apart from the tables and chairs, upon which all manner of stains, scratches, and gouges had accumulated. The furniture itself was haphazard; its original appearance obscured by decade's worth of DIY repairs. There was a small fire by one wall above which an animal was spitted, but it was poorly ventilated and any who entered the inn would find themselves involuntary smokers. The food and drink were mediocre at best, and the few customers in the main room were as rugged and travel-beaten as any aristocrat could have nightmares about.
There were two men slumped at one table, squashed noses and scarred faces a testament to a life of fighting. At another a young man, red-faced from too much drink, was whispering empty promises to his sweetheart, while she did her best not to inhale too much of his breath. Around the fireplace sat a half dozen wanderers; disputes and differences set aside for the more interesting prospect of freshly cooked meat. A lone figure sat in the far corner, studiously avoiding the brightest of the light, an animal skin cloak wrapped up around him so that all that could be seen beneath his hood as he sipped at his drink was a shock of scraggly brown hair.
The inn was rough, and rugged, and more than a little ramshackle, but it was a pleasant enough place nonetheless. There was a sense of belonging, a kindred spirit flickering between those who would, were they in any other place, have been scorned and spat upon. There were no pointless rules for people to abide by, no cultural niceties to cling to. People could eat with their hands. They could spill their drinks across the floor. They could bring their animals inside, shout and laugh as loud as they wanted, and not have to worry about being kicked out for it. Weapons could be, were encouraged to be, taken inside. To put it simply, it was a haven for those who needed nothing more than a place to rest on their journey before setting off in the morning, without having to watch their step every second of the stay. It might have been dirty, and smelly, and dangerous, but it was also welcoming, homely, and non-judgemental. But of course, nothing pleasant could ever really last for very long, and so it was that the inn soon found itself with two more, rather less amicable, guests.
The idle chatter died away the moment the men walked through the door. They were aetherials, and aetherials didn't have the greatest of reputations around the other species'. They were arrogant, demanding, and snobbish, looking down on any others as though they were little more than slime. A lot of people put it down to their wings (because when you can soar among the clouds it stands to reason that you would look down on those who live their lives in the dirt) but whatever the case they were for the most part quietly despised behind their backs.
There was more to the matter than simply the race of the arrivals though: they were clad in the red, blue, and gold of the UA peacekeepers. In a rough area like this there was bound to be at least one petty criminal they might be seizing, and a dozen pairs of eyes followed their every move as they stepped into the room. The conversations died away, one by one, to leave a brittle and uneasy silence. If the two noticed it, or the undivided attention they were attracting, they showed no sign.
The innkeeper, a one eyed man with a hatchet slung on one hip and a sawn-off on the other, stopped wiping the tankards and frowned, an expression quickly replaced by a blank lack of emotion. He set down his grease smeared rag, wiping his hands on it, and walked over to them. While his face was blank, and his manner welcoming, there was a wary spark of caution in his eye as he greeted them.
"Evening, gentlemen," he drawled in heavily accented Basic Human. "What can I do for you today?"
If he had been hoping for anything resembling a civil answer, he would have been severely disappointed. "What a nasty place this is." The first aetherial sneered superiorly down his nose as he took in his surroundings.
The innkeeper frowned, a light frown which suggested the comment was no more than a little joke among friends and nothing to take offence at- getting on the wrong side of the Alliance was not a good idea, not for those who valued their freedom. "It's plain, I grant you, but we're a welcoming enough place for honest travellers."
The lead one, who appeared to be in charge, glanced around at the patrons with something between scorn and disgust. "I sincerely doubt these cretins are honest." He looked back at the innkeeper. "We need rooms for the night."
The innkeeper inclined his head, grateful that they had finally moved onto what he knew best. "Alright then, happy to serve, as always. Is there anything else you need? Food? Drink? I can offer either of them."
The aetherial frowned. "Nothing like that. We need somewhere to spend the night, nothing more. As if we'd risk our health with whatever substances you serve."
The man acted as though he had missed the second part of the comment. "You've come to the right place, then. I've got a nice room upstairs with a good view of the road. It's on the south, so you'll be able to catch the sun as-"
"I don't want a room," the aetherial cut him off abruptly, "I told you two. You don't seriously expect us to sleep together, do you?"
"Of course not, but you see… well, I only have the one left. I can probably organise a second bed mind you, but it's still only the one room. Perhaps if you'd sent word in advance I could have arranged something more, but as we are all the other ones are taken. You have my apologies, but-"
"I don't want your apologies. I want two rooms, Alliance discount. And if you don't have enough spare, then you'd better empty another hadn't you?"
That got the attention of the other occupants. One by one they started rising to their feet, angry looks on their faces. Kicking other people out of the rooms they'd booked seemed to be crossing an invisible line. The innkeeper was visibly sweating by this stage, hands unconsciously creeping towards his holstered weapons. "I'm afraid that won't be possible. It goes directly against our policy."
The tension in the room was rising now, a palpable pressure building up. The first one leaned down so that he was at eye level with the man. "I couldn't possibly care any less about your stupid little policy. We've spent the last century working to turn this system into a better place, and that includes even this god-forsaken fragment. Every time you wake up in your bed, and there isn't something outside your window, that's because of us. Every time someone turns up on your doorstep, and they're more than a sack of shredded flesh, it's because of us. Every time your supplies arrive when they're supposed to, and they haven't been stolen along the way, it's because of us. So," he dropped his voice to little more than a whisper, "I will tell you this now. It's about damn time you started paying us back for what we do. If you refuse to clear me a room, I will do so myself- and trust me, my methods will be a lot messier than yours."
The innkeeper dropped all semblance of submission, his hands clenching around his weapons. "You obviously don't know who you're talking to. I've dealt with much tougher people than you two pretty-boys, and if you threaten me again I might just have to teach you some respect."
"Teach us respect?" The aetherial rise up to his full height, dwarfing the man once more. "If you really think you can do that, I might just have to kill you so nobody makes that mistake again." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I have half a mind to do so anyway."
"Hey." A hand appeared on his shoulder, interrupting his threats. Anger spread across his face; anger that someone might have the impudence to lay a hand one him. A question forming in his mouth, he straightened up and spun around- spun around right into the force of an incoming fist.
Grey had never liked aetherials- they were rich, arrogant, and demanding. They had a way of looking down on him, both literally and metaphorically, even more so than any lumin he'd ever met. He'd found that the best place to be when you saw one was as far from them as possible. That said, they did have one redeeming feature- no matter how nasty they appeared on the surface, they all seemed to have this mysterious habit of 'donating' their money to him.
He'd been fairly content that evening. He'd received notice about a contract last week, and had set off a few days earlier to reach the meeting point. It could have been much quicker if he'd gotten a lift, but he'd always preferred his own company to other people's, and besides, he enjoyed the trip. When you were on foot you could stop at a moment's notice, whether to take in the sights, to rest your feet, or to swindle some food out of anyone you wandered across. Even if animals didn't seem to despise him as they did he still wouldn't have ridden- it just took most of the fun out of it.
He'd been sitting in the corner, hood up, sticking to the shadows, when the two had walked in. It was a look he was trialling, and so far it was proving to be fairly successful- the badass stranger in the shadows, just visible enough to sight, but not visible enough to make out any details. He'd been fairly content to sit there, minding his business as everyone else minded theirs. Investigating and evaluating people was one of his habits, and he'd been passing the time doing exactly that.
It was a motley group they had here today. There were a couple of drunkards sleeping at one table. He'd figured out fairly quickly that they were likely to be ex-mercs, although they were hopelessly out of shape now and had likely never been particularly good to begin with. At another table were a young boy and his girl- this one had taken a little longer to figure out, but he'd finally picked out two important details: firstly that neither of them actually loved the other, and secondly that they were both seeing other people behind their partner's backs. That had amused him a little bit.
At the fireplace were six 'travellers' and the girl cooking the meat. Three pairs of eyes were trained upon her every movement, marking out those ones as the honest hunters and wanderers. Of the other three, two of them had already begun taking valuables from the unsuspecting others, and by the looks of things were working in unison. The final man was casting nervous glances towards the door, indicating that he was expecting unpleasant company soon. In this instance, it appeared that he was either highly paranoid, or was part of a group of highwaymen and had just robbed someone along the way.
The innkeeper himself was a stocky man in his mid-thirties, heading towards the later stages of his life. He seemed to be the only one even remotely capable of looking after himself in a fight, which automatically marked him out to Grey as someone to watch. He appeared to be fairly friendly, but beneath that he was more than willing to take care of any troublemakers by any means necessary. Running a place like this, developing that trait seemed fairly obvious. Like the others, he was armed, but Grey had looked past this to the more telling feature- it was one thing to carry weapons, but another to actually know how to use them.
Not long after he'd finished evaluating the current inhabitants of the place, Grey had found himself with two more interesting characters to scrutinise.
The aetherials were fairly typical- both were a little over seven feet tall, with the same golden hued skin, flowing features, and natural grace. The lead one had light blue eyes, and white hair which fell halfway down his back. The other had green eyes and his hair, which was somewhere between blond and brown, was cut just shorter than shoulder length. Both had white feathered wings protruding from their shoulder blades, the wings which had given their species the nickname 'angels'. When they moved they made not a sound, and if anything they seemed to glide more than walk, although most of that could probably be put down to their dominion over air. Their attire, although carrying the Alliance colours, was reminiscent of what they would have worn back on Aetheria- flowing robes, which would appear to offer protection from neither the elements or from attackers, but that they seemed perfectly happy to wear anyway. Of course, far more interesting than their appearances was the fact that they both looked fairly wealthy.
For as long as he could remember, Grey had been a very good judge of character. It had, after all, been a part of his training. What he saw when he looked at these two was that, even for their kind, they looked pretty important. While their attitudes could have been put down to youthful arrogance, the leader at least had an air which spoke of more than that. It spoke, if Grey was not mistaken, of minor nobility. And when it came to giving people money, nobility were at the top of his priority list- they were always so generous with him. His interest piqued, he finished the remainder of his drink and sat back in his seat, happy, for now, simply to listen in.
To start with, the conversation was fairly typical. The aetherials were being characteristically arrogant, putting down the inn and it's guests, pretending they were so much better than the rest. It was a fairly routine conversation, and to be expected when dealing with their kind. After that, though, things started spiralling downhill at an alarming rate.
No longer satisfied with merely insulting everything in sight, they became increasingly demanding, even threatening. This, was his first thought, might be pretty fun. He'd get to see a capable and experienced innkeeper face off against two combat-trained 'angels', and it might even be a good opportunity to grab some donations. Then, however, he began to see the flaws in the plan.
For one thing, they weren't just planning on beating the man around a bit- they'd all but told him he was going to die, and Grey wasn't sure he could let that happen. Also, it might not be quite the fair fight he'd been hoping to watch: the innkeeper might be capable against ordinary lumin, but Grey couldn't see how he'd be able to stand against these two's powers. He himself had had a few run-ins with aetherials, and while fun experiences all, they had also been rather life threatening. Besides, if these two were as good as they were making themselves out to be it might be worth the effort of stepping in. No matter how much his mind told him that he should be avoiding trouble for now, his heart was telling him that he couldn't pass up the chance for a good fight.
Nobody paid him much notice when he got up and began to walk towards them. Everybody's eyes, even those of the otherwise opportunistic pickpockets, were focussed on the brewing conflict. That suited him fine. As much as he enjoyed fighting, he still followed the first rule as much as possible; not because he wanted to, so much as because it would have been disrespectful for him not to. If somebody took the time to teach you something, he felt that you had to at least try to remember it as a matter of principle.
The first rule of fighting: always throw the first punch, and make sure that it's a strong one. "Hey." The aetherial, now nicknamed Blue, turned to face him, and Grey struck him straight in the nose. There was an audible crack as it broke, and suddenly the entire room fell silent in shock. Good. He always liked to make an entrance.
Skipping backwards quickly to avoid any possible retaliation, Grey took on a casual pose, arms folded across his chest as he waited for their response.
If their defence, the two aetherials were obviously well trained. Rather than clutching his nose and looking stunned, Blue instantly fell back behind his companion to gather his composure. Green, for his part, stepped between them immediately, drawing a pair of longswords and flowing into a parallel guarding stance, any existing surprise overwritten by intense concentration. Much to Grey's disappointment, it didn't look like he wanted to trade insults first, and he stepped forward into a rather impressive attack sequence.
Grey stepped backwards, just out of range of a horizontal slash which would have taken his head off his shoulders. He sidestepped a stab from the second blade before, grinning now beneath his hood, he hopped diagonally backwards and to the left as the first blade came back with a falling strike.
Grey had been hoping that his first opponent would slip up and provide an opening, or that there would be a gap in the offense that he could exploit. Unfortunately, as he dodged attack after attack, constantly giving ground, he began to realise that Green really was pretty good at his art. There was never any reprieve. Rule four of fighting, however, stated that there was no such thing as a perfect offence or defence- no matter how impregnable things appeared on the surface, there would always be a way around them.
In this case the answer was pretty straightforward. As he fell back past the two drunkards, still happily slumbering, he reached out with his right hand, grabbed their tankards, and flung them at the aetherial.
Seeing nothing but an incoming attack, Green flicked out with both blades, cutting both mugs out of the air before they could even come close, and not recognising the distraction for what it was until too late. Seizing the opportunity presented, Grey stepped forward inside the open guard, pivoting on his lead leg to spin round and deliver an elbow strike straight into the aetherial's solar plexus.
Green doubled over, winded and stunned, only just retaining awareness. Before he could recover, Grey dragged his head down, slamming a knee into his face, before stepping backwards to strike him with a reverse turning kick. His opponent sprawled on the floor in a state of semi-consciousness, and in no position to fight back anymore. Grey was just about to congratulate himself on his flawless victory when he found himself locking gazes with the first aetherial. He realised his mistake a split second too late.
Grey hurled himself to the side, and the wall of concussive force only glanced him. He was thrown off guard, bruised up his right side and his hood thrown back, as he tried to regain his composure. Retaining his balance, he only had enough time to cross both arms across his chest before he found himself struck full on by another blast of compressed air. Flung across the room, he struck the far wall and slumped down next to the fireplace, dimly aware that the others appeared to have cleared out.
Painstakingly, he fought his way back onto his feet. He'd only taken a single step forward though before he was hit again, this time from behind. He was thrown to his hands and knees, gasping for air, before he found invisible hands clenched around his throat, dragging him back to his feet, then onto his tiptoes.
Blue was before him, face drawn into a rictus of hate, lips drawn back into a snarl, an expression diminished not one bit when he saw who he was fighting. "A boy." Hood drawn back, Grey's features, finally exposed, proved this to be the case.
He was short for his race, which meant that he was a full two heads shorter than his opponent. He appeared to be a boy of about fifteen, with scruffy brown hair that fell around his head in a careless manner. He was of a fairly average build, with fairly average features- indeed, the only thing about him which didn't scream 'ordinary' was that while one of his eyes was a light yellow, his left was a dark purple. If not for that, he would have been utterly forgettable.
Blue wasn't making any allowances though- if anything, the fact that his subordinate had lost to a child only made him angrier. "Just a boy. A little boy, thinking he was some kind of hero. Let me explain something to you, boy." Grey mouthed something, and the man leaned in closer to listen.
It was nothing more than a whisper, the last air being forced out of his starving lungs, but to Blue it was clear as crystal. "Don't call me that."
The aetherial straightened, backhanding him viciously around the face. "You're in no position to be ordering me around, child. You have absolutely nothing to threaten me with. Me, on the other hand…" Another wall of force struck Grey with the power of a charging horse, throwing him across the room and through the counter. His left wrist cracked as he tried to catch himself, then a rain shattered glasses fell from above, leaving long vertical lacerations on his face from which little beads of blood began to well. The innkeeper chose this moment to step between them, but he too was struck by the aetherial magic and suffered a similar fate, winding up by the entrance. Turning back to Grey, the aetherial began to stalk towards him.
"Don't presume to tell me what to do, boy. From the moment you stood up you were playing with forces you can't even begin to understand." He crouched down , meeting Grey eye to eye. "All that remains is to make the best of your situation. Beg, boy. Beg for mercy, and I might even let you go."
"Go to hell." Grey knew this was the stage where he had to give himself up, but his pride just wouldn't let him. Blood began to trickle down into his eye. "You have nothing."
"That is a shame." The aetherial, standing up, making a hollow attempt at appearing regretful. "In that case, I have no choice but to discipline you."
Blow after blow began to fall upon Grey, both physical and magical. He was struck by a booted foot and his lip split open. A blast of air hit him in the chest, and he felt at least one rib crack. His head was slammed against the wall and he lost his vision. None of the remaining onlookers were foolish enough to step in, and he could do nothing but weather the storm until it blew itself out.
After both an instant and an eternity, it was over. Blue stepped back, blood on his boots, little spots of it dotted around the bottom of his robes. He ignored Grey completely, turning instead to the prone innkeeper. "You have one day to clear out. After that, this place burns." He walked over to his companion, kicking him spitefully in the ribs. "Get up. We're leaving."
Green rose shakily to his feet, attempting to look strong and capable, regardless of the bruises on his face, and the eye that was swollen shut and refused to open. Making sure not to lean on his superior, he stumbled back towards the exit alongside him. Blue stopped in his tracks just as they passed through the doorway, looking as though he was about to say something.
But someone else got in first.
"Arrogance." The voice was quiet, husky, but it carried across the silent room as clearly as any shout.
The two aetherials turned in surprise. "What?"
"Turning your back on your opponent. Thinking you've won before the fight is over. Arrogance." At the far end of the room, behind the counter, something was happening.
There was a growing patch of shadow, a small area of darkness which seemed not to reflect but to absorb the light. As they watched, it rose, lengthened, and resolved itself into the figure of a man. The figure took a single step forwards, the thud of its footfall echoing like the solitary beat of a drum. A second step, and from the shadows Grey emerged.
There was a small intake of breath from the aetherials. "You're still conscious?" Blue was incredulous, disbelieving.
Grey was bloodied, beaten. His right leg dragged behind him limply. His left arm hung nervelessly by his side. His face was slick with blood, and a red froth bubbled from his mouth every time he breathed out. He didn't walk so much as stumble along like a zumbie- but he was moving. And there was nothing weak about his eyes.
"Thinking yourselves the supreme power. Thinking nobody can rival you. Arrogance." Grey dragged himself forwards relentlessly.
"Stay down boy. Just stay down, or I'll have to put you down for good this time." Now though, there was a hint of trepidation, even fear, in his voice.
"Doing as you please. Thinking nobody will challenge you on it. Arrogance." There was a manic gleam in his eyes, and it almost appeared that his right had taken on the darkness of his left.
"That's enough! Stop right there, or I'll have to cut you down!"
"Thinking you have an option. Thinking you can hold your ground." A hint of emotion crept finally into his voice, a slight undertone of hatred. "Ignorance."
"Your, choice, boy." Blue flung his fist forward, and from it flew another blast of magic- not a wave of concussive force this time, but a razor sharp scythe which shredded through the floorboards and the furniture as though they were paper.
Grey weakly held out his right hand, palm thrust outward, and the scythe crashed against it. Drops of blood began to fly from his palm, but there was obviously something wrong. It should have sliced his arm clean in half, but if anything it appeared to be… slowing. The whirlwind of air came to a complete stop, and it's form began to waver, flicker. All of a sudden it seemed to fold in on itself, losing its shape completely. The energy behind it gone, the harmless air rushed past him on either side and dissipated against the back wall. Grey straightened, seeming somehow revitalised. While his injuries were far from healed, they no longer appeared to be bothering him. He grinned, spitting a little blood and saliva off to the side. "Now that," he stated in a self-satisfied manner, "Is what you call playing right into your opponent's hands."
A fearful understanding dawned on the aetherials as they finally realised what they were up against. "Caster."
Grey shrugged casually. "Half blood." Then he flew into action.
Blue sent another scythe flying his way, a horizontal one at about chest height, but Grey simply ducked beneath it, spinning and jumping straight at his attacker. Blue summoned a naginata from its sheath on his back, but even with his wind magic he was far too slow.
While the majority of the shadows had faded away, they still lingered around Grey's hands and feet, and when he struck the man with a flying side kick they latched onto him- only momentarily, but in that moment Blue was overcome by a deathly cold, his stomach muscles paralysed where they had come into contact.
Grey felt the familiar tug in the back of his mind as the dark magic did it's work, draining his attacker of energy and feeding it back to him. He never liked doing this- even without the added complication of the prejudice everybody held against his kind, it was hard work to fight and use magic at the same time. Caster magic was nothing like the effortless magic of the elementals- he had to fight against the sorcerous power every step of the way as it strained for release, and the added mental strain in the middle of a fight like this was only just bearable. The number of casters that used magic in close combat could probably be counted on two hands.
He struck Blue again, this time with an open palm strike to the centre of his chest that left a perfect, bloodied, handprint. The aetherial tried to gasp in fear but this time his lungs had been frozen and nothing came out. Grey hooked him around the ankle, sweeping him to the ground, before ducking the frenzied swipe from Green's longsword. He kneed him in the stomach, and though none of his paralysing abilities took hold it was still enough to double the bigger man over. He hit him with a falling knife hand to the back of the neck, sending him to his knees and causing every muscle there to go taut. Finally, he punched him hard in the temple, sending him fully to the ground and locking his face into an expression of what appeared to be confusion.
Grey kneeled there for a while, catching his breath and regaining his composure as the adrenaline burnt itself out. There was a roaring in his ears, and black spots were dancing in front of his eyes, the natural result of exerting himself to such a degree when he was in such a bad way. The shadows around his hands and feet faded away, eager to be free once more, and with them went the paralysis. Blue started to breathe again. Green slumped to the floor as though there was not a single bone left in his body. Grey just stayed there, staring at the cracked floorboards before him and thinking of nothing.
Eventually, he became aware of a hand on his shoulder. Looking up, he found himself looking into the bruised face of the innkeeper. No thanks were written upon his face, but then Grey hadn't been expecting any. From the moment he'd revealed himself as a caster he'd consigned himself to the same old mix: fear, revulsion, and general discrimination. The innkeeper might be in his debt for stepping in, but he'd consider leaving him alone to be enough payment to cancel that. Grey's mouth tightened in anger- anger at life, at the world, at the very injustice of it all. He wasn't a fool, though. He knew when he'd outstayed his welcome. "I'm going now."
"That would be for the best."
Sighing, he got slowly back up to his feet. The short term energy gain was rapidly wearing away, and all his hurts seemed to be hitting back harder than ever. Still, he was determined not to have made this a wasted effort. Stumbling over to Green, he reached down and plucked his coin purse from his belt. He headed over to Blue, reaching down to do the same thing, when he felt a slight pressure on his arm. It was weak, faded, but it was enough to show his presence was recognised. Blue's eyes were closed, and he appeared at a glance to be unconscious, but his lips were mouthing something.
Grey leaned down towards him, having to put his ear right next to the man's ear to hear anything. "I'll kill you for this, boy," he finally made out. "I'll kill you."
Grey stood up, picking up the second purse as he did so and beginning to walk away. "Do your worst, angel," he threw over his shoulder as he left, "but I've already told you: I'm not a boy." Not a word was spoken as he walked through the doorway and out into the evening sun. Nothing but silence followed his departure.
Grey made it about a kilometre before he gave up, lying down by roadside and trying to look over his injuries. He soon gave up though- it was too early to properly figure out what was broken, what was sprained, or what was just badly bruised. He closed his eyes, the exertions of the day catching up to him, and was asleep in minutes.