While Ramund found the town of Casserton to be a sweet relief from the gloom and sinful streets of Westport, it could not hold a candle to the rolling hills that surrounded it. He stood here, atop one of the hills, far away from the hustle and bustle of civilization, feeling the brisk winds sweep down upon him and tuck in his beard, his cape swaying like an ebony flag. It was a much-needed moment of quiet and escape from a world wrought in chaos. Or at least that was how the world felt to him, these days. He looked over his shoulder, and saw in the distance, a few faint pillars of smoke from the chimneys and blacksmiths of Casserton. Life continued over there, unhindered, untold of what was happening nought but a day's travel from them. Ramund wasn't the strongest of shamans, but even so, he felt a disturbance in the air; the wind blew cold and carried with it the cries of a hundred innocents, butchered by an unforgiving hand. He had heard the spirits whisper to him, that evil was coming their way. He had no proof, no way of being sure, but deep down he knew: Retby was surely gone by now. The smile he had otherwise donned upon himself while standing here, gazing over the world like a raven perched upon a tree, had fallen to a solemn frown at the thought. He knew that he carried a heavy burden, not only with the quest of bringing a world of innocents to safety, but also the burden of always knowing. If only, just for a little while, he could take a moment and forget the world's impending demise, forget the death of a thousand soldiers and merchants alike, and forget the taste of blood that never seemed to leave his mouth... he would have found such serenity. Such bliss, in a world so unglamorously woeful. Truly, at some level, he envied the ignorant. They would live their lives in calm and quiet, until a day came where the demons would swarm over their villages and put an abrupt end to them. Just like that, it would all be over for them. But he, Rose, and Duncan, were all forced to know what was coming to kill them, if Lucius Deum did not do it first. He had forgotten a lot of things, through his years. But he just never could forget what it was like to carry the world on his shoulders.
He shook his head, his beard swaying as he did. There was no use in over-contemplating these kinds of things. He knew that his time was short, and the consequences of hesitation were dire. With his hands on the pommels of his axes, he made his way down the hillside, towards a grove he saw peeping forth in the distance.
As he moved closer, the smell of bark and food seemed to grow more and more apparent. There was a distinct whiff of roast boar and deer floating around in the air, occasionally sweeping down past his nose, tickling his hunger. While Agatha's breakfast had been quite fine, a great man like himself required more food than she could offer. He didn't dare tell her, in fear of seeming rude, but he thought that maybe now he would get himself a chance to sate himself-—provided the Tu'Myaa were friendly enough to let him in.
From a distance, the grove seemed like nothing but a regular grove-—a woodland area, stretching out over the hills, with proud oaks spreading their leaves out in a loving embrace to the sun's rays. The oaks were tall and great, greater than any he had seen in the Fairlands so far, and probably all thanks to the naturalistic lifestile of the Myaani. However, as he came closer, he saw that civilization had set its mark upon the place even so. Walls of wood and rope encased the forest, tall and vigilant, heavily adorned with the flying banners of the Tu'Myaa-—their emblem depicted a set of armor, meant for the canine features of the Myaani, a helmet shaped with a muzzle and gauntlets with claws. The Myaani were usually peaceful folk, seeing more reason in equality and the appreciation of nature, but while the Tu'Myaa revered nature as well, they were ready for war, should the need arise. Ramund had to crane his head backwards slightly to gaze up at the great wooden walls, transforming the grove into a fortress. He stood now nought but a stone-throw from the proud gates, gazing up at the archer-towers, and the archers that stood in them. A Myaani in each, he felt their scrutinizing stares upon him, peering through the glistening metal helmets that they carried. He let them stare, respecting their caution—-that caution would most likely give them an upper hand against the demons, and that was exactly what this world needed right now. He could hear voices from behind the wall, men and women and children, speaking the strange Myaani tongue. However, when his gaze fell to the bottom of the gates, it was not a Myaani he saw waiting for him. It was a human. And a human that he recognized quite well.
Drenched in the shade from the great crowns of the oaks above her, Rose stood there, leaning against the wall, draped in her leather armor and the linen underneath. The linen that used to be white was slowly getting more and more brown, not having been near any kind of washing since they set on this journey. She stared at him, arms crossed, her lips fallen to a flat frown. He could see that she had been expecting him.
“Rose?” he asked, as he moved closer, all the way up to the gates and the walls here Rose stood “You surprise me-—again. Is all well?”
“All is quite well, thank you.” she said as she pushed herself off the wall and stepped a little closer to Ramund, having to look upwards to meet his eyes. She stuffed her hands down her pockets, rocking back and forth on her shoes “I was hoping I could tag along for your little... adventure. I want to see the Tu'Myaa for myself.”
Ramund smiled; this was rather surprising, actually, but the fact that she showed interest was a great step forward. He feared that she would just idle by, brooding in shadows and solitude, but here she stood. He uttered a little chuckle “A wise choice, my friend! Legends engulf this people, and I, as a Mjaln, am an avid hunter of legend and lore. Perhaps you are too?”
“Mjaln?” Rose inclined her head, and let a sarcastic snicker escape her lips “No. Legend and lore? Maybe. In my time in the asylum, storytime was one of the few things I enjoyed. The Tu'Myaa were often a subject. I never thought I would see them for myself.”
“Then do consider yourself blessed this day!” Ramund exclaimed, his smile growing “Come then; shall we see what wonders lie beyond these gates?”
Rose slowly quirked an eyebrow “Do you think we can just knock, and they'll let us in?”
Ramund rolled his left shoulder, glancing up at the Myaani archers, far above him “We can ask ourselves that question a thousand times, but there will always only be one way to answer it. Come then. Let us not hesitate.” he turned his gaze to the gates, and approached them. With his heavy hands, he pounded on the gate, three times, just to make sure he got the message through. He stepped back and let silence fall for a few seconds, Rose's eyes full of anticipation. They stood there for a few seconds, before a voice called out from above.
“State your business!”
Ramund looked upwards, and saw that it was one of the archers speaking. He was wielding a crossbow, loaded and pointed down at the strangers below. Ramund raised his thundering voice, and answered back “We are Ramund Bjornsson and Rose, veterans of The Crusade! We come in peace, and we carry a message that could mean the life of thousands—-yours included! We wish to speak with your chieftain!”
There was a silence after that, and he and Rose exchanged a few glances. He smiled, silently seeming to ask 'did I do well?', and to that Rose gave a little thumbs-up gesture. For a few seconds, Ramund thought that they would just silently brush them away, as others had done before them. But this time, that was not the case. The silence was broken as the gates began to grind, wooden and dry, slowly yawning open. Ramund took in a deep breath, and gave Rose a pat on the back. With a smile on his face and hope in his heart, he made his way inside, closely followed by his dark companion.
Stepping inside, the whiff of roast boar and deer that Ramund caught seemed to reach its crescendo, hanging like a curtain under the green crowns of the oaks that held aloft the ceiling of this place-—the ceiling being the leaves themselves, of course. He breathed in deeply, and drank from the sight that opened up to him and Rose, and swept itself around them as they stepped through those gates. It was a vivid city of Myaani, so full of life, with wooden houses in a harmonic tango with nature, never cutting down that which does not need cutting. Several houses were built into the wood itself, and the streets were adorned with the blossoming flowers of spring. The sunlight fell as a thousand slivers and pillars down through the ceiling of leaves, golden through the smoke from merchants' cooking fires and the steam from their bubbling pots. Old as well as young Myaani littered the streets, sitting on branches, in rocking chairs, playing tag with fawns or a game of chess—-or at least some Myaani variation that seemed like it. Peace reigned in here, and Ramund would have let him loose to inhale it all, but while this place housed children and the elderly, it was, undeniably, still the Tu'Myaa. It was made very clear that he and Rose were under strict supervision, when a pair of guards approached from either side of them.
Usually, this would not have been a particularly intimidating matter, but this time it was different-—this time, the guards that escorted them were riding upon wolves the size of horses, and three times as strong. Ramund took in a sharp breath, and Rose's eyes widened at the monstrous creatures. Wargs, he recalled. With fur so coarse they felt like thorns, and with teeth that could effortlessly plunge through a soldier's armor, Ramund was amazed to see that the legends were true. The Tu'Myaa truly had managed to tame these incredible creatures, and would rival even the legendary bear riders from the mountains. It was safe to say that even he, Ramund, who had otherwise felt little fear in his heart, found himself at slight unease in the presence of the wargs, whose footsteps were so heavy he could feel the ground tremor in wake of their slow, steady pace. He caught eye-contact with one of them, and was given a sharp snarl at his insolence. Taking a deep breath, he gripped Rose by her arm, just to make certain she didn't do anything particularly... bold.
And atop the wargs, were the guards. Ramund had never seen a Myaani look so strong before; so ready for war. Though their fox-like features gave them some sense of sleekness and guile, their muscles could easily rival that of trained Crusade soldiers, and their armor just as well. They were donned in steel and leather, engraved with the strange totemic carvings of Myaani tradition, and their helmets were thickly adorned with spiritualistic charms, either meant for good luck and divine favor, or as some sort of trophies. If there was anything the Myaani were known for, it was their shamanistic way of life, and their unmatched hunting skills. That, and the occasional tribe-less Myaani whose fingers were a little too long for their own good. Sadly, these were the ones that had given the Myaani an image of petty thieves and smugglers and drug distributors, even though they could be such magnificent people, like the ones that lived in and breathed life into this place. It was a misconception that Ramund hoped would be undone, one day.
He felt all the strange gazes the people here gave them, as they were escorted through the spring-greened streets, accompanied by a pair of these shaggy beasts. He knew that it was not a common sight, seeing non-Myaani in their streets, and it was clear to see that they did not take it as a good sign. Despite all this, he tried to keep his chin high, and his mood equally so. He would not get a chance like this again, after all.
“A beautiful place, would you not say?” Ramund asked, still keeping his grip tight on Rose as he spoke to her “Take a moment to inhale it all, Rose. The harmony. The dance with nature; the tranquility of it all.”
“The only thing I'm inhaling right now, is the smell of these... mongrels.” Rose spat glumly, casting a sour glance towards the wargs on either side of her.
Ramund shot a sideways glance down at Rose, and shook his head “Rose, sometimes you confound me. You came to find me willingly; I never dragged you through those gates.” a thought arose in his mind, and he looked over his shoulder, at the gates that closed behind him “On that thought: were you not supposed to stay in Casserton and listen to what rumors the folk might have to tell?”
Rose was quiet for a few seconds, her hands in her pockets, her eyes upon the verdant road ahead. When she spoke, she didn't look up at Ramund “Yes. But I ran into someone at the tavern who caught my attention. A man, aged, a veteran too.” now she looked up at Ramund, and he felt the sincerity in her eyes “A real one. Not one of Deum's... actors. His name was Edan Wolfe-—probably still is-—and he should be speaking with Duncan right now, if he's managed to find him.”
Ramund squeezed his lips together, sighing through his nose “I am pleased to hear that there is another veteran amidst, but veteran or no, we must be careful. Can we trust him?”
Rose shrugged slightly, her eyes falling back at the world around her; escorted by the warg-riders, they were led down streets that winded through the proud oaks, and up a slope where older Myaani seemed to reside. Sitting in rocking chairs on the porches of their wooden houses, it was strange to see how their fur seemed to grey, and their eyes seemed to droop. Ramund noticed that while they were all old like himself, most of them seemed feeble and withered, as if life had sapped them of all their strength. None of them seemed like warriors... and Ramund wondered if this was because the warriors just never managed to grow this old. Strange, how he was seeing more and more similarities between the Tu'Myaa, and his own people, the Mjaln.
“I think he's alright.” Rose said after a little period of silence “He's paranoid, though. Constantly worried about Deum's hunters coming to put lead between his eyes. Still, what with the world coming to an end and all, maybe paranoia is not a bad choice after all.”
Ramund couldn't help but smile “Do not confuse paranoia with survival instinct, Rose. These are dark days, as you said yourself. Survival is all we have to hope for, at this point.” he looked down at her “I am looking forward to meeting this 'Edan Wolfe'. Maybe he has some wisdom to share, and stories to tell.”
Before long, the warg-rides came to a halt, as they reached the top of the hill. There weren't as many citizens here, and far more armored soldiers than anywhere else. Some standing guard, valiant and vigilant in their exotic armor, others patrolling, and in the near distance Ramund saw a group of recruits doing jumping-jacks under the shouting command of what he assumed had to be some kind of officer. It reminded him of the front lines, but without all the sand, heat, and demons. But in the middle of it all, was an odd contrast to the otherwise fortress-like appearance of this grove. It was a tent, and one of traditional Myaani make—-strung to overhanging branches, it swayed in the gentle breezes, its cloth adorned with the shamanistic symbols for 'peace' and 'calm', together with the illustrious banners of the Tu'Myaa. Ramund looked up at the warg-riders on either side of him, as if to ask 'is this the place?', but the answer he got was only a cold stare from the guards and wargs alike. Taking in a deep breath, he took Rose by the arm again, and slowly made his way inside.
The first thing Ramund—-and probably Rose too-—noticed when they stepped inside, was the smell. The sharp, staggering smell of incense that filled the tent up like a Rimnoll fog. It had been tightly sealed within the tent behind the linen walls, and had accumulated to such a density it brought tears to Ramund's eyes. He had to narrow them to keep himself from too much stinging, but seeing anything at this point was utterly out of the question. He held unto Rose, both to keep her from doing anything rash, but also to keep her from getting lost—for this did seem like the kind of place you could get lost in, despite that the tent wasn't covering more than a few square meters. He felt pillows underneath his feet, laid upon the grass, no floor. He closed the linen flaps that made up the doors of this tent, even though he feared he might never find the door again in this dense mist of herbal incense. He stopped in his tracks as soon as the flaps closed behind him, eyes still narrowed, face full of confusion. It was only when he heard a voice from inside the fog, that he dared go further.
“I do not recognize your scent.” a voice spoke, old and withering “Come closer. I would sense you for myself.”
Ramund looked down at Rose, even though she was hard to see, what with the incense so thick that he wouldn't be able to see his hand with an outstretched arm. Still, he did not question the voice from inside, and moved a little closer.
“Stop there.” the voice spoke again “Sit.”
Ramund swallowed. This was beginning to seem a little strange, and he feared that of all the books he had read about, he maybe should have indulged himself in more books of Myaani customs. He sat, as ordered, hands in his lap, Rose sitting right beside him and seeming equally confounded. However, soon after, he felt a strange breeze inside the tent; a breeze that seemed like it came from nowhere. He felt it tuck in his face, his iron-braced beard, his clothes... and within a few seconds, the incense seemed to lessen. It lessened like a morning dew giving way to noon, and more and more was revealed as it did. The pillows underneath him, yellow and purple and tan, all neatly sown and riddled in the intricate Myaani drawings and inscriptions. Above him, hanging like vines in a jungle, were a myriad of charms and dolls and totems, tied to strings and adorned with feathers and paint. He was surprised he hadn't bumped into any of them, the tall man he was.
However, what truly drew his attention was what the incense gave way to, sitting on a throne merely two meters in front of him. A Myaani, aged to the point where his fur was slowly turning grey, and his muscles seeming to wither away, well on their way to the afterlife already. Ramund felt a slight jump as he saw the incense give way, and feared a judging look from the Myaani, but quickly realized that was not going to happen-—and with good reason. The Myaani before him wore a leather blindfold over his eyes, wrapped around his standing ears, one of them chipped on the top and the other littered with piercings. And in between them, glorifying the Myaani on the wooden throne, was the traditional feather-crown of chieftains, with feathers of all colors and sizes, far more boastful than the proudest peacock he had ever seen. However, it rested upon a head that seemed to have seen better days-—scarred, aged, and blind, this old Myaani seemed like he was bidding life goodbye already.
His muzzle was turned slightly heavenwards as if he was looking Morrin in the eyes, and his breathing was slightly struggled. However, perhaps that could also be thanks to the pipe he had in his mouth, so long it reached from his mouth to his hip, and clearly the source of where all this smoke came from. Its end lay in the frail, bony fingers of his left hand, and his right was slightly outstretched and with remnants of pale magic dancing like fireflies in between. Ramund wasn't surprised—-this Myaani was a mage as well, and probably a shaman too. The magic he had used was certainly what had lifted the fog of smoke, and revealed the inside of the tent to him and Rose. He looked down at Rose a final time, and saw clear in her eyes that she knew she wasn't the one meant to speak her. He realized it was all on him, he being the eldest and all. He swallowed his unease, and looked back at the chieftain again. But he was interrupted.
“I take it... you have not come without purpose.” the chieftain spoke out the side of his mouth, the other side occupied by the mouthpiece of his pipe. While his voice was frail and feeble, it carried some strange sense of authority in it that made even Ramund shiver a little. Even though he was blind, it was as if he stared right through him, and into the parts of his soul where only he was allowed. It was a strange sensation, and a horribly intimidating one. He felt as if telling any kind of untruth would be futile in face of this chieftain, and that lies would be seen through before they were even spoken. Was it magic? Some kind of submission aura? Even Ramund couldn't tell... but then it was fortunate that he had no reason for telling lies anyway.
“We have not.” he answered respectfully, and head bowed slightly; he wondered if there was any point in gestures, though, in face of the blind chieftain “We have come with quite a dire message, in fact. We have told this to leaders before you, and twice now have we been brushed away, disregarded. But the truth is not one to disregard, chieftain.” Ramund wasn't certain what to call him—-'your highness', 'your greatness'... he decided just to call him what he was, as that could surely not go wrong “Over the hills, a danger far greater than this world has ever seen comes swarming like locusts, destroying everything and all in their path. I am certain you have heard of the fate of Aegon, chieftain—the rumors of arson or accidents-—but I am here to tell that it was no accident. What broke down those walls and razed Aegon to the ground was nothing short of—“
“—an army of demons.” the chieftain interrupted him, much to his surprise. Stifled, his mouth was still open to keep talking, but he found himself suddenly wordless. His eyes fell briefly to Rose, who seemed just as surprised. When he looked back at the chieftain, he was given the answer to the question he hadn't asked yet.
“I have heard it whispered upon dire winds.” the chieftain said, leaning back in his wooden throne, putting his pipe aside for a few moments “I have read it in the ripples of uneasy lakes, and I have felt it in the sting of icy nights. The signs were aplenty, but the certainty... absent. I am a leader as much as I am a sage, dear guest. I would speak to my people and have them venture north to safer lands, but I cannot ensue worry and fear before I know for a certainty, that these signs are true. For a long time, it has been unclear...” he slowly leaned forward, elbows on his knees, and even though he was wearing a leather blindfold, Ramund felt as if he was looking him right in the eyes “...until now.”
Ramund wasn't certain what to say, at first. He had expected the same kind of dismissal from before, and feared that he would have to fight a battle of words against the chieftain, surely to lose it in the end. But here the chieftain sat... listening. It was almost alien. Absurd. Unrealistic. But when he realized that this was very real, he cleared his throat and spoke.
“Chieftain, you... you surprise me.” he decided to be honest, throwing in a disbelieving chuckle as well “I had thought we would argue first, then part later with nothing resolved, only more reason to spite one another. Should I assume that you then already know what I am about to tell you?”
“Not... entirely.” the chieftain continued, resting his frail hands on his knees as he leaned back in his throne again “I have seen the signs, but signs never tell a story full. I am aware of many a thing, but it is rare that I should know every single detail of one given thing... this apocalyptic army included. Tell me, dear guest: from whence do you come, that you are one to tell me this?”
He looked down at Rose again, as if asking if she wanted to say anything-—she gave a brief shake of her head. He looked back at the chieftain, and took a deep breath “We are soldiers, chieftain; of the Crusade... and I am sure that you, in your wisdom, can tell the true from the false. Some may tell you that all is good and glorious beyond the waters—-I will not fill your ears with such lies. I am here to warn you that the safety of all living things is in perilous danger, and not even the strength of the Tu'Myaa can withstand the coming storm.” he looked away for a brief second “This is no insult. This is simply... a fact. I know that you are ready for war, as the only Myaani people to be, but so was Aegon. And Aegon had walls that disappeared beyond clouds, and were said to reach all the way up to gods and angels. But those walls did not matter when a hurricane of fangs and fire swept over the city, and left it razed, barren, broken.” his face turned viciously dire, his voice darkening “The same will happen to you, if you do not bring your people to safety. The Myaani are a noble folk, and I would hate to seem them wiped out... the choice is yours, chieftain.”
The chieftain remained silent for a little while. He put the pipe back into his mouth, and let smoke seep out of his canine nose. Ramund knew the chieftain was thinking, but Rose seemed almost to lose her patience, before he began speaking.
“Yes.” he stated briefly “Yes it is. Normally I would listen to your kind and politely dismiss you... but I sense truth in your words. Truth... and fear.” his eyebrow did a little twitch “You are scared, my friend... are you not? But not of death. Not of suffering. Not yours... but of someone else's.” this was the exact thing that Ramund felt; the gaze that pierced through his facade, and stared right into who and what he truly was. All the things he kept secret, all the things that he thought was only for him to know. His face went slightly pale at the chieftain's words, and his hand fell to the music box in a leather satchel in his belt. How could he have known? He was a man with many strengths and few weaknesses—-but his family was one of those few.
“And a liar would not be afraid of his own lie...” the chieftain fingered his pipe slowly, his nose twitching slightly, sniffing at Ramund as if trying to smell his words “...But a truthful man can easily be afraid of his own truth. I do not believe that you are feeding me lies, my friend. You are the last sign I needed, to make certainty of these whispers I have heard.”
Ramund felt something inside of him that he had not expected to feel for a long time: hope. It swelled up inside of him like an overflowing well, spilling out over his entire being. He felt strangely young again, the rigors of age swept away on the winds of spirit. He smiled, an amazed chuckle escaping him, and even Rose seemed pleased-—although, judging by the little smirk on her face, maybe 'entertained', or 'amused' was a better word. Ramund looked back at the chieftain to speak, but was interrupted.
“And if you are no liar... then perhaps you are one of the few who have escaped the manacles of duty, and returned from the war. I have heard Deum's ilk and tasted their lies; their mouths overflow with untruth, as they speak great words of glory and victory from the lands to the south. You are the first to tell me otherwise. I think... perhaps we share a mutual interest, my friend.”
Ramund's smile was replaced by a puzzled look, Rose mirroring it. He remained quiet for a little while, wondering if the chieftain was going to continue speaking. But as a few seconds went by, he asked what was on his and Rose's mind alike.
“And... might I ask what that would be?”
This time, it was the chieftain's turn to remain quiet. He 'stared' out into thin air for a little while, his muzzle cocked slightly upwards, smoke seeping through his jagged, canine teeth. He breathed in the incense, a deep breath to get the best of it, before speaking.
“Lucius... Deum.” he said, the word spilling out of his mouth together with the smoke “We Tu'Myaa have been in many a conflict with him and his ilk. No swords have been drawn as of yet, but I fear the day where blades will conquer diplomacy. Of all liars I have met, Lord Deum smells the worst. A stench of lies follows him like a wicked fog, his bright facade simply a mask upon his dark and filthy mind. He lusts for dominance and fame and power, and in his eyes, the Tu'Myaa should be under his command as well. As I am certain you know, two of our three Fairlandish villages have fallen to his sway, and become part of his... 'world nation'. Like an infection, it spreads, consuming more and more cities and people. Most of the western world has already succumbed to his influence, but there are a few who resist. Westport, for one, and we Tu'Myaa as well-—but the greatest resistance he has faced must surely be Moonby Sanctuary. While the nobles may be greedy and selfish, they are our best hope to create a strong resistance against Deum's corrupt rule. Even the great city of Aegon fell to him, and if he is not stopped, the world shall go blind behind his curtain of lies, and numb to what is truly happening. I may be blind, but I have never seen anything clearer than this... to stop this man, we cannot idle by. We must act. We must band together. We must seek out the strong and the weak and see that no man shall drown away in the shadow of Deum's empire. We...” he slowly let the pipe fall to his lap, his face full of dark sincerity “...must rebel.”
Ramund took in a sharp breath, his face wrought in surprise “Rebel? To rebel against The Crusade is suicide, chieftain. You said yourself that diplomacy between you and Deum may soon give way to war-—rebelling is certain to result in exactly that!”
“Then perhaps it is the only way.” The chieftain continued, his voice harboring no hesitation, no doubt “It cannot be denied that we, the Tu'Myaa, are as ready for war as can be. We have been ready for war since I founded it, forty years ago.” Ramund recalled that the Myaani race were created no more than fifty-four years ago, which meant that the chieftain founded it when he was merely the age of ten. Looking upon him, seeing how aged and withering he was, he also recalled just how short the lifespan of the Myaani was “It pains me to wage war against those who would defend us from the coming army of demons, but it would pain me even more to see the eastern world flee into Deum's arms, when the army comes to their doorstep. This army is Deum's greatest opportunity to scare the other nations to give in and fight under his banner... and if Deum is victor of the war, he will be victor of the world.” he let out a long sigh, smoke pouring from his nostrils.
“We are squeezed between two evils, but one evil is one we can fight. The demons will come, and they will burn the green hills of our home, but to the north, there will be blades. There will be soldiers in the thousands, and there will be walls to keep the demons at bay. With the aid of the Moonby nobles, perhaps we can end this reign of untruth, lift the night that has laid itself over the world, and bring about the dawn of enlightenment. But with Deum on the throne, there will be darkness...” his muzzle slowly turned down towards Ramund and Rose, giving them that eyeless stare behind leather blindfolds “...a darkness that you, my friends, can see beyond. You are living proof of Deum's lies, and some of the select few that have made it out alive. With you at our side, no man can turn a blind eye. You, and only you, can bring an end to the lies.”
Ramund wasn't certain what to say. A rebellion. He had never dared to think that this could be an option at all. The odds just seemed so horribly insurmountable. Deum's holy empire expanded far beyond the horizon, and countless men and women would surely follow him to their deaths if it meant squashing a measly rebellion like theirs. He looked at the chieftain, feeling almost frightened. But even without eyes, there was still some strange confidence in his grey-furred face. There was belief in the decision he had taken, and an authority that Ramund had not seen in far too long. Had it been too long since he had looked upon another man who did not fear death?
“But even with help from the nobles, The Crusade can and will still crush us! Effortlessly!” Rose butted in, seeming like she had had more than her fill of this, Ramund seeming quite shocked to see her suddenly spit out those words “Come on, I mean, you must have heard of The Kighthood of Morn. Those people are legendary—-some even say that they're not people at all, but a knighthood of angels bestowed on Godshill to ward off evil... and in Deum's eyes, we will easily qualify as evil.”
“And so, the quill and the blade does battle.” the chieftain responded swiftly, his muzzled turned towards Rose, his expression unaffected by her pessimism “Deum may have the strength to wipe us from existence-—but we carry truth. And as long as there is a king on the Godshill throne, all Deum's decisions must go through him-—including our death sentence. I have seen the king myself through the eyes of passing birds, and I have felt his purity in the wind that passes through his throne room. It is through him that we will show the world truth, and through him Deum will be defeated. And once that is done, we can all look to our common enemy, and unite under a single banner to make certain that this world lives to see another daybreak.”
Rose quieted down. She looked at the chieftain for a rather long time, her teeth gritted, her expression pained. Ramund could see that she wanted to retort, but could not find the words. Maybe even she could see now, that bringing Deum down was the only way.
“Very well then.” Ramund continued, letting out a long breath “This is not what I had expected... but perhaps we have no other options. If it is a rebellion this world needs to clear the fog that Deum has laid, then it is a rebellion it will have.” he smiled a little, even though he knew that the chieftain couldn't see it—-or could he?
“It is one it needs, but not one it wants.” the chieftain continued. He slowly rose from his throne, his frail legs shivering underneath him, and began to pick out feathers from his crown. One pristine blue, and one fiery red. One in each hand, he held them out to Rose and Ramund, and spoke in a deeply ceremonial voice “It is on this day that I pledge allegiance to you, and it is in the smoke of my home that I promise undying loyalty, unwavering resilience, and unblemished truth. It is on this day, this hour, that the Tu'Myaa embark upon that which they have been made for. War.”
Ramund looked down at the feather, and gracefully accepted it. Rose did too, holding it with a puzzled look on her face-—she clearly didn't realize the symbolism in being given a feather from a chieftain's crown. Ramund, however, saw that it was a sign of trust-—trust that those given the feathers would be careful not to ruffle it, lest they should face the wrath of the chieftain himself. Ramund gave a respectful nod, and put his pristine blue feather into his pale ponytail.
“We will not disappoint you, chieftain. Spirits guide your way.”
The chieftain's lips turned back in a pleasant smile, as he sat back down in his throne. Ramund looked down at Rose, who was still holding the fiery red feather, seeming rather uncertain of what to do with it. He gestured silently to the feather he had put in his ponytail, but she just gave him a lazy-eyed, sarcastic look—-she had too short hair for that. With a little spin on his heel, Ramund walked outside again, Rose close at his heels. He could see how the incense began to gather around the chieftain, and eventually swallow him whole.
Ramund left the chieftain's tent with a renewed sense of spirit, and one he had not felt in far too long. His wrinkled face wrinkled even further by the wide smile that he carried, and he knew that Rose was giving him weird, entertained looks, but he didn't mind. Walking down the streets again, this time without an escort, he felt as if he was looking upon the world in an entirely new way. It was as if he hadn't truly appreciated the beauty of it all, before now. All the birds that joyfully sung the praises of the noon sun, and the way the light fell in a thousand splinters through the leaves-—he felt like the darkness that had overcome him when that demon slew the harlot in Westport had finally been broken by a new dawn. He walked with long, almost theatrical steps to express his pleasure, his bearded face raised to bathe in the sunlight. He let out a long, relieved sigh, and spoke with a gentle tone.
“The world might be ill, sister.” he said, speaking to Rose but too absorbed by the beauty of it all to look down at her “But I do believe we just found the cure.”
Rose kept quiet for a little while. While she seemed as drab as always, Ramund could feel some hope blossom in her as well. The way she took in all the great oak trees, all the scents of life, the smell of spring leaves and joy, rather than looking for solace in the dirt, all gave it away. After a few moments, she responded, a hint of amusement in her voice, her eyebrows arched slightly and an ever so subtle smile on her lips.
“...You just called me sister, Ramund.” she said.
“That I did.” Ramund replied with a mirthful chuckle, this time turning to look down at her “We have walked alongside one another for quite some time now, Rose. I see no reason why you should not be deemed my equal. You have proven yourself more than enough for you to have earned my respect. And now with a new dawn rising, we must band closer together to see it done.”
Ramund had not hoped to hear her laugh, but this time, she did. It was a sweet sound to hear, so strangely merry and lighthearted, as if Rose had finally shed the masque of misery. He looked down at her, and saw how her eyes glimmered with a belief in herself that he never thought he would see. But there it was, clear as a beacon at sea.
“I don't say this often, Ramund, but... I'm flattered.” she said, tossing him a gleeful look, smiling “I've heard stories about your kind, and what it means to be considered a brother or a sister. The doctors at the asylum made quite the emphasis out of it. So many stories about strong brotherhoods that forged their legends through blood and snow and... well, you know what I'm trying to say, I'm sure.” she stuffed her hands down her pockets, and looked up at the sun as well “To think that maybe we will forge a legend too, one day.”
“We already are, sister.” Ramund said, taking in a deep breath, feeling the sweet spring air fill his lungs. His eyes moved about the verdant streets they walked upon, catching eye-contact with a few Myaani boys on their wooden rocking horses, or girls with their knitting kits, all seeming to enjoy the life they had. He even caught sight of one little Myaani boy dashing past him from the thin crowd before him, probably playing a swift game of tag with someone. True enough, there a grown woman Myaani came running right past him, pushing people aside to get through. A little rough perhaps, but fun nonetheless. Things began to seem a little strange when a man Myaani came following too, carrying an oddly stressed look on his face. And there, another one-—and another. They all looked... frightened. He noticed how the other Myaani around him were giving the bypassers strange looks as well, and there just kept coming more of them; a little girl was first, but before long, there were almost as many running Myaani in the streets as there were walking. It seemed a game of tag at first, but Ramund feared that the truth was not so merry. These people weren't running after something. They were running from something.
“Ramund...” Rose's voice dropped to a cautious darkness, one he shared inside himself “...What is happening?”
And that was when he felt it. An uneasy wind came their way, strong and dire, washing away the sweet scent of spring and flowers, and giving way to the unmistakable reek... of fire. Something was horribly amiss; Ramund did not need to be a keen shaman like the chieftain to feel the fear that howled through the air like winds of its own. He felt the hairs on his neck rise and the hope in his chest plummet and rot. And before he knew it, he felt his right hand move unto the handle of one of his axes, and the left on Rose's shoulder.
“This is not right.” Ramund's heart beat a fearful rhythm in his chest, pumping fire into his blood like the fire he could smell “Rose, stay close. Something could go horribly wrong this day.” he did not hesitate to break into a steady jog, Rose close behind him. Whatever the distance offered, he feared that the day he had just praised might turn out not to be as praiseworthy as he had hoped.
The smell of fire only grew stronger the closer to the gates they went, and the crowd grew thinner. Hundreds had fled past them by now, and he saw platoons of Tu'Myaa warriors marching out, weapons in their hands, armor on their bodies, and war in their eyes. Several wargs had passed them by, by now, each and every one donned up with heavy plate that covered every since of their massive bodies, and leaving their vicious eyes staring out of a gigantic steel visor. It was certain now; the air reeked with the bloody stench of battle, the air tense with fervor, the ground trembling under the heavy steps of wargs and warriors. Ramund had drawn his axe now, but he hoped dearly he did not have to use it. But deep inside, he knew he might have to.
As they came to the gates, they saw how archers were lined up, shoulder to shoulder on the walls, bows drawn and arrows cocked. He heard voices shouting, and not just the bellowing commands of Tu'Myaa officers, but the angry cries of men. Ramund could not see past the great wooden gates, but he saw how it seemed to bend inwards. It sounded like there was a crowd behind those gates.
“Rose, follow.” Ramund ordered, quickly glancing backwards to see that she was still close. She was, but while his heart carried a crippling fear, he could see in her eyes that the same did not go for her. There was excitement in them, lustful, aroused. He tried not to look too long, to avoid feeling sick.
He quickly ascended the walls from behind, up a staircase of wood that creaked underneath his weight, up to the Myaani archers. And as he did, when he gazed over the hills that had otherwise reigned peace and tranquility, he saw nothing but war. His heart seemed to cease its beating, a cold rush pouring through his body like ice as he saw all the torches, all the pitchforks, all the butchers' knives and the angry looks on their faces. The green of the hills gave way to the flickering orange of torchlight, as Ramund stood there, staring upon what must have been all of Casserton come to burn the world down. Hundreds upon hundreds of villagers swarmed before the gates, roaring, shouting, crying out for blood. He felt like he couldn't move, thrown back to the front lines for a few seconds, all the villagers here for but a split moment seeming like they had massive claws, ungodly maws full of saliva, and bloodshot eyes.
“You will pay this day, pigs!” he heard them shouting, throwing stones after the archers “You have killed your last innocent, vermin! Vermin! Vermin!” they cried out, chanting their own fury. Ramund could scarcely believe what was happening, and even Rose seemed shocked. These were not the peaceful villagers he had seen trading wool and hay, enjoying life in their rocking chairs with nothing on their minds but this year's harvest. These were demons, hungry for bloodshed. What in the world had happened, to infuriate them like this?
“Ramund!” he suddenly heard his name called from the roaring crowd, a single voice amongst the many. He thought at first it was but a figment of his imagination, but when he saw Duncan down there, jumping up and down and waving his arms, he thought otherwise. His eyes grew wide as he saw his captain amongst the angry villagers, seeing a look of horror and distress upon his face. Ramund quickly took Rose by the arm, and looked her in the eyes.
“Trust me now.” he said, and did not wait for her response before he clenched his free hand into a fist, and closed his eyes. For a few seconds, the world seemed to fade away. The smell of fire, the shouting of villagers, the bloodlust. A moment or two went by of absolute peace, where there was nothing but himself, and the spirits. He saw blue fill his vision, and he felt his skin tingle as if something divine had taken his hand. And that very same hand now bustled and shone with deep blue energies, which he clenched and crushed like a glass ball. As his eyes flung open, he saw the energies spill out over him and Rose, covering them like dust. Rose seemed a little confused at first, but before she could ask, she was ripped off the edge of the wall as Ramund performed a leap of faith. He gritted his teeth as he leaped, and if his spell had failed, he would surely fall and break both his legs. Fortunately, that was not the case. Instead, he and Rose drifted like autumn leaves to the ground, knocking over a pair of villagers in the process. He heard them shout their complaints, but Ramund did not care. He took no hesitation, before powering his way through the crowd, easily done for a man of his own size.
He felt all the body heat down here amongst the filth, and all the shouting grew louder than ever. He felt the heat of the torches, the stink of sweat, the stink of war. With Rose trying to keep up, he held her with an iron grip to keep her from getting lost in the crowd while he plowed through, his eyes fixated upon the waving arms of his captain. And when he finally pushed the last angry villager aside, he got a good look into Duncan's eyes. Never had he seen a fear like this.
“It was me!” Duncan cried, gripping Ramund's mighty arms with frail, shivering hands “It was all me, but they won't listen!!”
“Calm down, now.” Ramund replied, trying to seem like he had things under control—-despite that it was as far from the truth as it could be “You need to speak clearly.” Rose, while trying to stay away from the jabbing pitchforks and butchers' knives, stared upon the man with eyes that seemed like they could never close.
In that moment, Ramund caught sight of Agatha too. She was right behind her son, shivering too, afraid of all that was happening around her. She must never have seen the people act like this, so furious, so... animal. And by her side, holding her close and fending off those who would get too close, was a grizzled man, aged but with a face that seemed carved out of granite. He was wearing armor too, a hybrid mix of leather and steel, woven together in a way Ramund had not seen before. His right arm was covered entirely in scaly layers of steel laid upon one another and strapped together, but his chest was but plain brown leather, hardened. This must have been the man Rose spoke of, though he hadn't imagined him like this. With his right hand, he held around Agatha, but in his left, he carried an armor and blade that Ramund easily could recognize: it was Duncan's.
“Ramund, please...” Duncan whimpered, staggering backwards, his voice snapped and his eyes shimmering with tears “...They won't listen.”
“Your captain is broken, Mjaln.” the grizzled man, Edan Wolfe, spat out like was it poison, his eyes full of it too “He killed a woman, thinking she was a demon. And now these sheep have chosen to blame the Tu'Myaa instead.”
Even though Wolfe's voice was hard to hear with all the shouting around them, these words cut through the noise like a knife through butter-—and a knife that made its way right into Ramund's throat, jamming his words and making it feel like he couldn't breathe. Rose too was stifled, standing there and looking upon Duncan who had fallen to his knees, his face buried in his hands, wet with tears. Agatha squeezed her eyes shut, making it seem like she was denying any of this happening, that none of it was true. But this was a nightmare from which she would not awaken.
“Oh Duncan...” was all Ramund could say, his shoulders sagging in a deep, pitiful sigh. But as he breathed in to speak again, a voice above all others interrupted him.
“Enough of this!” a Myaani atop of the walls, donned in great armor and with a far more intricate and elegant helmet on his head snarled through his visor. Ramund looked over his shoulder, and seemed to catch eye-contact with the Myaani, just as he spoke the words he had hoped that he would not.
“These swine are on Myaani land, and they are posing a threat to hundreds of innocents. You know protocol.” He shouted to his archers, raising a hand-—for a moment, Ramund swore that he could see a smile behind that shining steel visor “Wipe them out.”
As he threw his hand down and signaled the archers to let the arrows fly, only then was the last specks of hope in Ramund's heart stomped out like a fickle flame under a merciless boot. Everything seemed to slow down in those seconds, as the archers let go of their strings. It was as if he could see it all happening down to the smallest detail-—the bowstring giving in, the feathers of the arrow bending under pressure, the steel head gleaming in the light of the sun and a hundred torches. It was in that second, that he threw himself to shelter his comrades, grabbing them all by their collars and holding them tight. He closed his eyes, and all the shouting of the angry villagers seemed to become little but background noise as he felt Agatha, Rose, Duncan, and Wolfe all hold unto him, want or not. But their bodyheat all seemed to give way to the sense of a biting, breaking pain, and all he could hear was the sound of steel snapping. He wasn't sure what had happened. He felt strangely warm all of a sudden, and only when he looked down at his chest and saw that the white cloth shirt he wore had gone red, did he realize. He breathed heavily, and felt the arrowhead inside his chest. He swallowed, and laughed a little.
“It... it seems I've been...” he was interrupted as another surge of pain ripped through his body, and he saw an arrowhead stick out of his stomach. This one had gone all the way through, and blood spattered unto Rose who stood there, watching, stifled. He looked into Duncan's eyes that were littered with horror, and he heard him shout something, but his mind was in too much of a haze to understand the words. He slumped to his knees, feeling his strength giving way under him; the first arrow must have struck something vital. Was it finally time?
He felt the earth sink under the weight of his knees. It was soft. Warm even, and pleasantly so. He saw how the wargs had been unleashed, and were charging through the horde, sending the helpless villages flying and swallowing others whole. He gazed into Duncan's eyes, now swelling with tears, his cheeks flaring red and his mouth shouting his name-—he could see it on his lips, but he couldn't hear it. Rose had backed away, almost as if this was too much, even for her, and Wolfe was trying to rip Duncan away from him. Duncan was afraid, but it was alright. This was a good way to go.
In the soundless scenario that took place around him, although slightly blurry, he saw how hell had truly been unleashed by now. Blood mist seemed to rise like a carpet over the horde, and he could feel the heat from trees that had been set ablaze behind him. Wargs rampaged around the place, arrows were hailing, and hundreds of men were slain in but a few seconds. This was definitely war. This was war in its prime, though not the war that Ramund had expected he would die in. He sat there, his body limp and helpless, watching in silence as another warg came plowing in from the left, tearing Duncan, Agatha, Rose, and Wolfe away. They were ripped out of his vision by the monstrous beast, and while he did not want them to die as well, there was nothing he could do by now. The first arrow seemed like it had broken something inside of him, and now all he could do was watch.
He watched as the warg shoved his friends away, but the rider hopped off right before him, looking down at him. It was the commander of the Tu'Myaa, the one who had ordered the extinction of the Casserton people. He had red eyes. Red like the color of Ramund's shirt. He stared at him through his shining steel visor, and stepped up close to him, close enough to touch. Ramund looked wordlessly into his eyes and saw him say something, but he couldn't hear it. He could only hear his own pulse, which seemed to become slower with each passing second. He could only hear the fires of the grove, crackling and burning as they devoured all. And as the Tu'Myaa commander picked up a great thick branch from the ground, he could only hear the voice of his own daughter, calling to him. The commander smiled as he raised the stick over his shoulder, but so did Ramund. With his daughter calling to him in his head, how could he not? As he felt the commander ram the stick across his temple, and as he saw the world disappear into darkness, he smiled. The sound of his daughter's voice was such a sweet thing to die to.