There was an eerie silence, in the town of Retby. No one quite knew why, but everyone could feel it. The sheep hadn't been eating at all, the cattle had been uneasy and nervous, and the birds... the birds were nowhere to be seen. She had stared out the window for a long time now, trying to figure out what was going on. She, of all people, could feel it in particular. Or was it just the silence of not hearing her son's footsteps in the house anymore? She sat with her fluffy tail in her lap, and stared out into the streets, at all the mud. She had been wanting to ask the guardswoman Moira about how her son was faring... but she was nowhere to be found. It was strange enough that the animals were acting odd, but the guards too? You didn't have to be a practiced spirit dancer to feel the unease and disturbance in the atmosphere. The bitter winds, and the clouds that drifted in chaotic ways. The merchants and farmers and stable boys noticed too.
“Mother...?” she quickly looked over her shoulder, and saw her daughter stand there, a tattered teddy bear in her hands and a concerned look in her eyes. Merchants, farmers, stable boys... and children, it seemed. She looked down at her, tried to smile. She turned around on the little wooden stool by the window where she had sat so many times ever since her son was taken away, and reached out to take her daughter's hand, inviting her unto her lap.
The little girl took her mother's hand, and scooted up unto her lap. She was wearing a little dress of ragged, cheap linen adorned with the totemic charms of her pack, just like the ones she had tied into her own mane. The little girl sat there on her lap, on her warm skirt of the same linen, clutching her teddy bear-—she hadn't let go of it for so long, and she was beginning to tear holes in it. Her eyes were full of sad longing, and she couldn't even look into her mother's eyes. That's what bothered her most... she wouldn't even look into her eyes anymore.
“Is brother ever coming home?” she asked in a meek voice. She sat there, chewing at her lip, and all her mother could do was sigh. She knew the answer perfectly well, but she just couldn't accept it. In time, she would... in time, they both would.
“Only the spirits know.” she answered her and ran a hand through the neatly combed tan hair that slipped in between her foxy ears and rolled down her back “And if the spirits see it fit that he returns, he will. He is serving a greater cause now. You really mustn't be selfish, dear.” she had been saying that so many times, but the words felt like poison upon her tongue. In truth, she wanted to cry with her, but no daughter should see her mother weep. The day they came for him, and took him away... the poor girl was never going to forget that. Was this really the fate she deserved? What kind of cruel divine game would harm a young girl like this? She was never going to be the same... she could barely even recognize her, the way she acted. But somewhere, deep inside, she recognized her now better than ever. Not as her daughter, though. Not as the sweet little girl she had raised, taught table manners, taught how to speak, to walk, to sow. That girl was long gone. Now she was simply a hollow, hurt little reflection of herself... and she feared she was never going to become the sweet child she once was. And here she thought she was safe from the rigors of war, in a place like Retby. But the day that they dragged her son out of that door, she realized that this war wasn't only happening in The Wastelands. It was happening everywhere, for everyone.
Her gaze fell out of the window once more, to the muddy marketplace down the slope. Puddles danced a grimy tango with the mud, both glistening in the light of dawn. The smell of cow and pig had bothered her in the past, she remembered, but now she just felt so dull. It was as if life had lost its edge to her. What more was there to be had in this world, than the ghost of the son she once had?
Her eyes fell upon something strange, in the middle of the muddy marketplace. There was a stranger, standing there. He was tall, wearing grey stitched robes with a hood over his head, seeming almost like a pilgrim of sorts. But there were no gods to be found in Retby. He was standing there with his hands holding his robes together, his head lowered with the hood covering his face entirely. This wouldn't have been an unusual sight, as Retby was often a stopping place for travelers, but this man just stood there, doing nothing. But then, someone approached him. Someone she had not expected to even walk out of his door these days. It was the mayor.
He was quite a characteristic one, this mayor, since he was the only man in town with a tummy to boast for. While he wasn't obese, he still had a stomach that proudly bulged outwards, and with arms to match. He seemed like he was in a hurry too, his face covered in a thin layer of sweat that glimmered in the red glow of dawn. He walked up to the man in grey robes, and began speaking with him. While Myaani ears were sharp, there was no way she could hear him from here, especially not through a closed window. She looked upon them with curious eyes as they began to speak. The mayor seemed oddly frightened, for some reason, and it looked as if he was begging something of the traveler. She had never seen the mayor beg before, and it wasn't a pleasant sight. What was going on here?
And then, like a flash of lightning from a clear sky, the pilgrim whipped forth a flintlock and put it to the mayor's forehead. Her eyebrows rose and she wanted to call out for him to run, but it was already too late. The clamor of the gunshot echoed off the hills, and she felt her veins run cold for a moment. She sat there, frozen, before she saw the man's figure ripple and twist, almost like looking through the refraction of water. His robes dissipated into thin air, and what was left behind was an oddly colorful thing to behold, in this world of mud. Green, red, purple, pink, and blue all mashed together in a thousand ribbons and silken threads that made up his strange attire, all crowned with a ridiculously large top hat on his head. Even from here, she could see the serpentine smile that made its was across his face, while his emerald green eyes looked down upon the executed mayor that lay there, all undignified in the mud with blood on his face and lead in his brain. She turned to her daughter, her heart pounding like a drum as she hurried to grab her by the armpits and hoist her over her shoulder.
“Mother!” the little girl cried, but she quickly hushed her with a snap of her tongue.
“Not now! Please, don't ask, just be silent!” she snapped at her, and while she hated herself for snapping like this at her own daughter, there was not even time for an apology. She burst out her front door, feeling the brisk wind tug at her fur and the mud squeeze through her toes. She looked towards the marketplace again, and saw the colorful elf rise his arms high in glory, and his voice suddenly boomed like thunder over the hills.
“Wake up! Wake up, Retby, for the Carnival of Hell has arrived!” his voice echoed off the hills like his gunshot had did, but there was something else as well; something coming over the horizon. She could feel it in the ground, like an earthquake picking up to wreack destruction upon the world. She looked down at her feet and saw all the little pebbles jumping and dancing, and the mud wriggled like jelly. She saw all the other people of Retby hurrying outside to see just what the hell was going on... until they realized, that this was exactly what was going on. Hell.
As she whipped around to run away, run until her legs collapsed under her, all she found was the first taste of what the Netherworld had in store for her. Her heart felt as if it refused to beat any longer, and her muscles stiffened as if struck by rigor mortis. And, in truth, when she looked upon what was coming over that hill, each step a thunderclap that reverberated in the ground, she felt dead already. Great, bloodshot eyes as large as plates stared upon her as she stood there, all lonely in the streets. The demon that rose up before her was surely nothing short of three meters tall, and with fists the size of entire full-grown pigs. She slumped down into the mud, her head rising as she stared up at the juggernaut monstrosity that loomed before her, staring at her with eyes that cried nothing but bloodlust and hellish insanity. She could hear her daughter cry, but it all felt so distant all of a sudden. The screams of the Retby people reached a chaotic crescendo, but in her ears, it was all just background noise. She could feel heat rise around her as the village was set aflame, and all she could do was sit there on her knees, her daughter in her arms.
And when the juggernaut raised its fist up high, she instinctively covered her daughter's eyes as she squeezed shut her own. She prayed for this to be over quickly, to spare her daughter the pain. In this moment, all she cared about was her daughter. She didn't care about the village, the war, the world. It was all going to end now anyway, as she saw the shadow of the juggernaut's fist overshadow her and her daughter. She held the little girl tight, and wished she wouldn't cry in her final moments. There was a slight ringing in the head. The taste of mud. Darkness. Deathly silence.
The village of Retby burned, but its flames couldn't be seen over the hills. The only burning color that washed over this part of The Fairlands, was that of dawn. Casserton was wide awake at this point, with merchants and farmers filling up the wide streets. The smell of hay filled the air as ox carts drove by, and roosters cried out the praises of the rising sun. It was all quite peaceful here, in the ignorance of what was looming over the horizon. No one could smell the smoke.
“And stay out!”
Duncan was thrown out the door, and scraped his palms against the gravel, swearing at the pain. On the ground, he quickly turned around and faced the guardsmen in the door—-a pair of burly grunts, clad in uniforms. They stood in the doorway of the mayor's office building, a mighty brick-roofed house, on the very top of the slope that Casserton snaked up upon. The streets were quieter here, where the merchants had no business, and only the wealthier folk went about. Duncan heard a pair of wives giggle at him, as they saw him lying there in the gravel. He gave the guardsmen a glare of death, but it was cut short as they slammed the door before him.
“You can't do this!” he snarled and bounded to his feet, ramming his fist against the closed door “Listen to me, damn it! You're the mayor-—you have to listen to me! Please! Lives are at stake here, for gods' sakes!” he didn't care about the pain in his knuckles, his mind clouded in fury, his teeth gritted together so hard they might crack. Blood spotted the door as he continued to strike it, but despite his anger, no one was listening... or so he thought.
“...And you must be Duncan.”
He abruptly stopped up, and snapped his gaze to his left, where the voice came from. It was tattered and hoarse, and the same could be said for the owner of it. He was a grizzled man, old and greying, with a chiseled face that seemed no less stern despite the wrinkles it was getting. Duncan stepped away from the door, giving the rag-draped man a strange look. He was leaning up against the wall of a nearby straw-roofed house, here in the quieter, finer district. The roads here were narrower, not meant for the herds of cattle and sheep to pass through, and with indents for the wheels of horse chariots.
“That I am.” Duncan replied hesitantly, wiping some blood of his knuckles unto his denim trousers “Do I even want to ask how you know my name?”
“How about I just tell you, so you won't have to?” the man pushed himself off the wall, and approached Duncan. They stood a few meters from one another, almost equal height—-despite the man's coming age, he hadn't slouched the least. He extended a coarse, almost leathery hand “I met a friend of yours. Rose. She told me about what you and a certain 'Ramund' were doing here... I want in.”
“You want in?” Duncan wrinkled his nose and snorted through it, taking a step back “I don't even know you.”
“Why do you think I'm extending my hand to you, boy?” The man moved closer, his voice rough like sandpaper “C'mon. Shake it. Show some courtesy.”
Duncan looked at the grizzled old man with suspicion, but saw only insistence in his eyes. He looked about himself, and saw how there were regularly wealthier farm-owners and guardsmen walking about. If this man was up to something funny, a helping hand would surely not be far away. Although reluctantly, he moved forward to shake his hand.
“Duncan.” he said “My name's Duncan. Duncan Ross.”
“And I'll be Edan Wolfe, an ally.” the man, Edan, said as he gave Duncan's hand a firm shake, then let it slip from his grasp “Now, Duncan. I take it you don't have your Mjaln friend nearby?”
Duncan folded his arms, and rolled his shoulders “Maybe. What's it to you?”
Edan smirked, and let out a hoarse chuckle “Suspicious, are we? Good. That's how you survive. What if I introduced myself as Lieutenant Edan Wolfe?” his head inclined, baring more of his short greying hair.
Duncan was stifled for a few seconds, unsure of what to say. He opened his mouth several times to speak, but in the end, his eyes only narrowed further, even more suspicious than before “Lieutenant, huh? Name the three largest camps in The Wastelands, in descending order.”
Edan's smirk grew to a smile “Vanguard, Storm's Rest, and Swan.”
Duncan shook his head, his shaggy hair swaying “Alright, bad question. Anyone could know that. Hrm...” he scratched a little stubby beard that was beginning to grow on him “What camp do you claim to be from, 'lieutenant'?”
“Vanguard.” Edan was quick to answer, bobbing his head at Duncan “Just like you.”
Duncan sneered “How do you know I'm from Vanguard?”
“Don't be silly – your friend, Rose, told me. Can we stop these stupid games now?”
“Not quite.” Duncan wagged his finger “Final question. What is the name of the dark elf general who oversaw Camp Vanguard for the last sixteen years?”
Edan let out a single 'hah', and gave Duncan a casual point of his finger “That can only be Yrvan Direblood, the greatest ass to ever receive a title.”
Duncan stood quiet for a little while, staring at the man who called himself a lieutenant. His thoughts were split between paranoia and the sweet relief of seeing another true veteran, but in the end, he could only smile “Good gods, I never thought I'd see another veteran.” Duncan moved closer and proudly performed a salute, straight-backed and noble, as he had once done so many times on the battlefield. And his smile grew larger, his hopes swelling as Edan performed one right back.
“A real one, that is.” Duncan said as he dropped into a more casual stance, his hands in his pockets “I take it you've stuck around here longer than I to hear about, or even experience all the liars that Deum sent down here to spread his propaganda.”
“Every day, boy.” Edan sighed, his shoulders sagging as he did “But you numb yourself to the sound of their voices pretty quickly. If you're here to 'enlighten' the people, you can stop trying already. They're beyond healing. Gods know I've tried.”
Duncan quirked an eyebrow, giving Edan an odd look “Really? Tell me, lieutenant, just how long have you been here?”
“Long enough to settle down with a home, hoping never to hear anything about the war again.” he uttered a self-ridiculing chuckle “The fool I was. Come, let me show you where an old fart like me resides. You can brief me on the details-—and I can brief you on mine—as we walk.”
Duncan watched as Edan turned around on his heel, and strolled down the narrow street, down the slope. He watched the aging man with a little smile on his face. He had never thought to meet another veteran... maybe there were others. With confidence in his heart, he followed after Edan, down the slope to wherever he may lead.
On the way down the slope, through the streets that grew wider and more busy the further down they went, Duncan told Edan about everything. Nothing was left out. He told him about the way Camp Vanguard was overrun, and what theories they had made about it all. Intelligence behind the vast hordes of demons, the fall of Aegon, the mass recruitment in Retby and even Lex... a name he had not spared any thought for quite a while. And with good reason. He told Edan about what happened in The Wilderness, how the lurkers had gotten him and carried him away. He said it all with some hesitation, but it was the undeniable truth... and in comparison to what immeasurable havoc and death the demons had created already, it was nothing.
In the meantime, the dawn had slowly turned to noon. The sun stood bright and proud, speckled by the clouds that looked like a great, flying sheep in the sky. The cold of night was long since pushed away, and the fact that The Fairlands was such a southern realm became clearer and clearer, as the heat grew thicker and muggier. Beads of sweat rolled down Duncan's temples, and he saw that the cattle and dogs were having an equally hard time, their tongues lolling out of their mouths while they stuck to whatever shade there was.
It was only when they came to a quieter district of Casserton, where the crowd wasn't so thick and the merchants had no business, that Edan told about himself. Like with Rose, he told about what he had learned about what he liked to call 'the holy conspiracy', referring to the propaganda and manipulation that The Crusade was executing... 'executing' being a very fit word for this subject. He mentioned what he saw, when he came back from the field. He told Duncan about the way the veterans were put down like dogs, and how those too broken to be sensible were just let out into the world to preach their mad ramblings-—no one was going to listen to them anyway, so who cared? Duncan listened at what Edan told, and felt a sickness inside of him. To think that these were the ranks he once fought under.
However, after a little while, Duncan found himself led down one of the few alleyways of Casserton—-there weren't many, and far most of them were used as pigsties instead of housing quarters. This particular alley seemed to be a bit of both. A pair of fat pigs were gorging themselves on a newly filled trough of things that the people wouldn't eat, and Duncan could hear their munching and squealing before they even turned around the corner to the alley. The road here was soggy and muddy, being rather close to one of the rivers. Edan, however, didn't seem to mind. With hands in his pockets, he trudged through the mud and manure, up to a little door that seemed as if it was simply built into a big wooden wall-—there was no way of knowing where one house ended and another began without going inside. It reminded him dreadfully much of Westport, and he couldn't remember this from before his time on the field. Maybe Casserton was falling a little apart... judging from the rumor of murders, it was seeming increasingly clear that it was.
A keyring jingled as Edan pulled it from his belt. He stood before the door, grumbling as he sifted through the keys, speaking meanwhile “I'm sorry about the mud and pig shit, by the way, but when I bought this place, I just wanted to be in a place as quiet as possible—-and I've sort of gotten used to the snorting of pigs by now. It's more the voices of people that bother me.” he said, uttering a single, abrupt 'HAH!'.
Duncan smiled a little “Don't worry-—I've seen worse. Westport, for example.”
The door creaked as Edan twisted the key and pushed it open. Duncan followed quickly afterward, giving a short glance to the world around them. Were they followed? No. Good. With that, he stepped inside, and closed the door behind him.
Edan's house was a humble one. Unlike Agatha's house with three floors and several rooms for children, Edan's only had two: what seemed like a kitchen, and... this place. Duncan couldn't quite make out what it was from the mess that filled it up. Stacks of papers on desks, maps spread out and pinned to the walls, trash and discarded books scattered unto the moldy floors. Duncan stopped up for a second, wide-eyed at the utter disarray, at all the overturned furniture, the burnt-out candles with nothing left but wide splotches of wax, and cabinets with their drawers pulled out and left littering the desks. It looked almost as if someone had broken in and ransacked the place. But seeing how Edan maneuvered through it effortlessly, it was clear to see that this was indeed how it was supposed to look.
Duncan moved further inside, stepping over the piles of papers and books on the floors, all while still entranced by the sheer chaos of it all. However, in the midst of the turmoil, there was something that seemed quite neatly organized. On one of the walls, newspapers were hung up by pins with dozens of circles drawn around certain articles. Newspapers weren't exactly uncommon these days, what with Wellington Machines in The Dragonlands having invented some device to print hundreds of these things a day, but The Mortal Realm was a big place, and having this many newspapers seemed bordering on obsession.
“Want something to drink?” Duncan's attention was torn away from the newspapers as Edan called out from the kitchen.
“A cup of water would do fine.” he responded nonchalantly, his eyes falling back on the newspapers. He approached, and noticed there were, in between the papers, portraits of people too. Hung on the walls by pins, and upon those pins, were dog tags. Dog tags? Duncan felt his curiosity well up inside of him as he looked over all the faces-—men and women alike, all dressed in military uniforms. There were six of them, some young, some old; some humans, some not; some seeming hard and practiced, others seeming like it was their mothers' choice to send them into war. And each one of the portraits had a dog tag accompanying them. But in the middle of it all, there was a picture of a woman, not only with a dog tag by it, but a silver ring as well. Her name was Dorothy. She seemed like a sweet woman, auburn hair and pretty blue eyes. He reached forward and picked the ring from the wall, feeling its coarse silver in his palm. He stared at it for a little while, turning it around in his fingers, seeing it gleam in the sunlight that rolled in through a nearby window. In that light, he saw a little inscription carved into the silver.
'Not even war can kill our love'.
Suddenly, Edan's rough hand snatched it out of Duncan's grasp-—he jumped, not having heard him approach. He looked over to him, and saw that the jesting smile on his stern lips was gone. All he saw was a stare so cold it gave him shivers.
“We don't touch that.” his voice was full of darkness as he put the ring back where it belonged. Duncan realized what he had done, and chewed on his lip, his head dipping in apology.
“I... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to—-“
“Drink up your water.” Duncan felt the cup of water be shoved into his hands, and quickly gave a few nods. While he sipped at his water, he saw Edan's hazel eyes gaze upon all the newspapers, all the faces, all the dog tags, reminiscence clear in them. They stood there in silence for a little while, Duncan not daring to break it. He didn't have to ask to know that something had put more than physical scars on this man, and judging by the dog tags, he already knew the sinner. The war had broken many spirits, and at first, he had thought Edan was one of the lucky few to come out unscathed. He was beginning to think that he was horribly, terribly wrong.
“Duncan.” Edan finally broke the silence, turning to look into Duncan's eyes, grave silence in his own “You mentioned you were a captain, right?”
Duncan, having drunk his water, put down the cup by one of Edan's overflowing desks, and looked back at him “'Were', 'am'... I'm not really sure anymore. But I did lead a squad once, that I know.”
“As did I.” Edan commented dryly, and put down his glass as well. He approached the wall with all the newspapers and portraits, and gestured to it all in an almost theatrical manner “And here you see them. Each and every one. Iselda, the high elf who wanted to impress her mother. Bart, the lad from the Rimnoll Wetlands who just wanted to be free of the orphanage he grew up in. Fervaren, the dark elf who sought a challenge tougher than street fighting. Cicily, the girl from Lumion who wanted to protect the dreamlike forest she grew up in. Roy, the man from Godshill who believed that joining the war was a greater divine will. And Dorothy. My second in command... who later became my wife.” he sighed through his nose and looked upon the sweet auburn-haired woman, his eyes lost in memories that only served to punish him. Duncan had guessed what came next.
“They're all dead, Duncan.” Edan spat the words out, cringing in disgust at the taste of them. His nose wrinkled, his voice so dark and bitter it seemed to dim the light that fell in through the window “All of them are faces I will never truly see again. Voices that I will never hear. Company that I will never share.” he chewed at his lip, but Duncan couldn't see if that was anger or tears in his eyes. Maybe it was something in between.
“I'm sorry for your loss, Edan.” Duncan said, laying a hand on Edan's shoulder “I really am. The war takes a lot of lives. We've all felt your pain.”
To Duncan's surprise, Edan uttered a snort at this. The look he gave him, the somehow hateful and ridiculing smirk on his face making him feel almost sick “The war does, yes. But not these people. The war didn't kill my squad. Deum did.” he brushed Duncan's hand off his shoulder, and looked him in the eye “You probably know by now, that when they send people home, it's not uncommon they send an entire squad-—sometimes a few more. In this case, my squad was sent home together with a few poor sods who had completely lost it to all the gore and death.”
“Wait...” Duncan interrupted him, eyes wide “Are... are you saying that the people that were executed the day... was your squad?” Duncan prayed that it wasn't true, but the look on Edan's face killed that prayer as soon as it was born.
“Damn right.” he scowled, his teeth gritted—-this time, there was only anger in his eyes, gleaming and flickering like a flame that refused to go out “It was a slaughter, Duncan. We were pigs for their slaughter. We stood in line in some building just outside Aegon's walls—-they told us this was where we were going to be 'dismissed'. That's one fucked up way of putting it. My squad was in the front part of the line, and the war-broken husks of people were behind us. I was right in between. I saw my squad be sent into a sealed-off room, one by one, and I never saw them leave.” he sat down in a nearby chair, elbows on his knees, eyes far away, reliving his story as he told it.
“I was in front of some poor bastard who was convinced he was still on the battlefield, and I was behind my own wife. We were married at this point; she was pregnant, even. Early stage—-no tummy yet. We were going to have children, you know. I was gonna be a daddy.” for a moment, a tiny smile made its way over his lips, but it was conquered by a spiteful, loathing sneer “But that never happened. After all my squadmates except for my wife had gone into that room and never came out, I got suspicious. I kissed my wife and told her to run, if it was necessary. I couldn't tell if she ever understood what I told her, but when she was stuffed into that room, I quickly switched places with the broken lout behind me. He stood there, twitching and shivering like a maniac, and I did my damn best to imitate him. I knew for sure that my fate all came down to how well I could act like the war had torn my mind apart. And when they took him too, stuffed him into that room, it worked. They must have thought the poor sod was me.” he tossed the cup over his shoulder-—it landed softly in a pile of paper.
“I'll never forget the face of the man who walked out of that room—-or his name. Sigfried Müller, brigadier general. Pale as a dead man, as is so common for anyone born and raised in Nightweald. He was bald, and his left eye was cloudy and blind. He was wearing some kind of leather coat reaching from his shoulders to his ankles... when I saw blood on his gloves, I knew what the bastard had done.”
Duncan stared at Edan, fear and disgust bubbling in his chest as he sat down into a chair opposite of him “Good gods. How didn't you kill him? I... I wouldn't even know what I would do in your shoes. I would have lost myself entirely.”
“I was damn well close to.” Edan sighed and leaned back in his chair, slinging one leg over the other “He had murdered my squad. My friends. My wife... my unborn child. Butchered them, and all that came out was him, the blood on his gloves, and a devil's smile on his face. He had enjoyed it; the glee was written all over his pale, grinning face. All I could think of was my hands wrapped around his throat and snapping his neck... but I guess I've been too well trained for that. I knew that if I lost myself there, I would have blown it. I would have been put down as well, and that was no way of honoring the deaths of those I loved. I let my anger look like just another symptom of excessive trauma, and I like to think it was what saved my life. When he began asking questions, I memorized his voice, so that I could tell him apart from the rest, should I ever meet him again-—not that he's difficult to recognize, not with that face. When he was done asking his questions, he just... dismissed us. Threw us out into the world, to do whatever.” he sighed “Most of the other broken bastards didn't have a clue of how to function in a civil world, away from the war, but I... I felt like I had never functioned better in my entire life. I finally knew what I was doing. I finally had a purpose in life... a quest to complete.” Duncan felt Edan's gaze clash with his, so full of bitter loathing, a grudge and a lust for vengeance beyond anything he had ever seen.
“I am going to find Sigfried Müller, and I am going to kill him. I'm going to make him regret in his final moments what he had done, no matter if he was ordered to or not... he enjoyed it, that sick fuck. And I'm going to enjoy plunging my sword into his throat.”
There was an eerie silence after that. Duncan and Edan stared at one another, Duncan with stifled, anguished sympathy, and Edan with the eyes of a monster lusting for revenge. Duncan had to swallow, swallow his fears and take a deep breath before he could speak.
“Edan... I usually don't support revenge... but this-—this I can understand. Maybe we can help one another. Maybe, when we find Müller, you'll stay your vengeance long enough for us to question him. We're going to need to know what is going on here. After that...” Duncan pursed his lips slightly, and shook his head “I don't care what you'll do to him. But I trust you'll make him see justice in the eyes.”
“Oh I will.” Edan scowled “He'll stare me right in the eyes and see justice. But don't worry. I can stay my hatred long enough for you to squeeze some words out of that snake.”
Duncan tried a little smile “I'm glad to hear that. But... I have to ask, Edan. How do you mean to find him? The Mortal Realm is a big place, after all. He could be anywhere.”
To that, Edan was quiet. He didn't say anything for a few seconds, his eyes brooding and his mouth shut. But as he rose from his chair and opened the door to the muddy outside, he spoke “Follow me. I'll show you.”
Duncan watched Edan with some curiosity. Was it really so that he couldn't just tell him? Duncan knew better to question him, though. Not after hearing what kind of man he was. Silently, he rose from his chair as well, and followed after him.
Edan led him further away from the slope of the hill, into the flatter districts of Casserton, towards the rivers that surrounded the town. It was quieter here, away from the marketplace's hustle and bustle. The houses were smaller, the streets narrower, the mud thicker. Duncan knew this place well. He remembered playing a lot here as a child, when he wasn't in the tulip fields. He had some friends living around these parts, where they would chase hens and play with the neighbors' dogs. Now, it was just a quiet little place, where the elderly slept the days away and gaunt dogs at the eve of their lives sat on porches, watching with somber eyes as strangers walked by. Duncan swore he could recognize one of them. But then again, after being away for so long, the faces of dogs had probably begun to slur into one another.
Going through Casserton was almost like taking a tour through life itself. At the top was all the wealthy ones, and those with children. The young boys and girls would sit and wave at bypassers, and leap unto carts to take a ride through the town. Further down the slope were all the working folk—all the farmers and butchers and bakers and blacksmiths, toiling away the years for a bit of coin. It was a hard life, but one the Casserton people were used to. Here they spent most of their years until they came of age, where they would then settle down in the quiet district to watch the years slip through their fingers, their age going up number after number after number. And then, at one point, that number would stop going any higher. And that's when, at the final stop of their journey through life, they would end up here.
The cemetery was a peaceful place at day. The way the birds fluttered around the gnarly old trees that grew between the gravestones, and how the light seemed to gild all the bushes and glimmer in the plaques that immortalized the names of those gone from this world. Duncan felt a soothe, as he walked through it, following Edan. He remembered the conversation he had here with Rose, and his soothed sensation turned to slight worry. What could Rose be doing right now? She was unwatched, unguarded... she could be in trouble, for all Duncan knew.
He sighed. He figured that Rose could probably handle herself, and Casserton was far too peaceful a place to be concerned about danger anyway. What Duncan did find him concerned about, though, was why Edan had led him here. The grizzled, aging man had been silent all the way here, and still was. Not a word had escaped his lips, and his eyes had been full of a brooding hatred for something—or someone. Duncan hadn't dared ask. He figured it was just best to come along and see what Edan had to show.
While he had expected that Edan would prove some kind of point by showing him a grave of someone, he had not expected this. Edan had stopped up before the mausoleum in the very middle of the cemetery, standing before it in ominous silence for a little while. There was no one else in the cemetery at the moment-—Edan had checked quite thoroughly. And he did so again, casting a glance to either side, before he approached the door of the mausoleum.
“Uh, Edan.” Duncan broke the silence they had otherwise kept for so long “This... this is the mausoleum. Only mayors are meant to be buried there. And the mayor who ordered this thing built hasn't even died yet.”
“I know that, Duncan.” Edan spoke gruffly, his voice full of a strange darkness that Duncan had not expected “Just bear with me here. And don't say anything. There might be people watching-—and listening.”
Duncan looked about the place, a sudden worry sprouting in his stomach. This suddenly seemed like more than a simple pay of respect to someone dead. This seemed... illegal. Not that Duncan hadn't had a brush with that before. All he could do was watch as Edan pried open the granite door to the mausoleum, grinding and rumbling as he did. The door yawned, and Duncan stared inside, seeing the darkness inside the place only broken by a single pillar of light that shone down from a domed window in the ceiling. It was a fairly well-sized place, with space for many dead mayors to come... yet, what Edan wanted with this place, was question Duncan kept asking himself. Whatever it was, he was about to find out, as Edan stepped inside and beckoned him to follow.
It was oddly cold inside the mausoleum—-even in the rays of noon, the chill of night seemed to linger inside this place of eternal rest. He could hear his own footsteps as he followed after Edan, keeping as close to him as possible. He could feel his own unrest gnawing at his heart, sending it beating hard and nervously, his fingers jittering slightly. But Edan—he was calm as Yantsu philosopher's koi pond. And that only served to unnerve Duncan even further. He breathed in the chilled air, and smelled the death. But it wasn't supposed to smell like death in here—no one was buried in here yet... right?
“Close the door.” Edan droned quietly, his hoarse voice ringing off the walls. There were already coffins lying prepared inside little chambers in the walls, surrounding a stone slab in the middle of the room that looked almost like some sort of altar. The fickle pillar of light that fell from the window in the ceiling illuminated this stone structure, and Duncan saw how it was made of the finest marble. As he closed the door, he began to realize how much the mayor must have spent on this mausoleum. He seemed quite eager to be surrounded by wealth and splendor, even in death.
The door closed with a rocky grind, eventually blocking out all sound from outside. The tweeting of birds, the calm whistling of warm breezes, the rushing of distant rivers—-they were all but faint background noises now, giving way to the silence of this hallowed place. Duncan stood in the shadows, and Edan stood in the light of the window. He spoke with a hesitant tone.
“Edan, don't you think you'd like to tell me what's going on now?” he asked, stepping out of the darkness, and into the glow that reflected off the marble altar “I am beginning to like this less and less.”
“I didn't ask for you to like it.” Edan spoke over his shoulder, almost snarling “And I don't have to tell you. I'll show you instead.” he turned away from the light, and ventured into the shadows that clung to the walls like ink. Though he may have been an aged man, Duncan saw that his strength had not withered the slightest, as he effortlessly carried one of the coffins upon his shoulder, and laid it unto the altar. By the slam that echoed, and the dust that flew, Duncan could tell it was full.
“I need you to shut up now, and let me speak.” Edan said again, beckoning Duncan closer “Come on. You'll need to see this for yourself.”
Hesitantly, Duncan approached. He wasn't too fond of taking orders from Edan, a man he had met this very day, but deep down, he had some irrefutable respect for the man. Was it because of what he had gone through? Was it because he, technically, outranked him? He couldn't quite tell.
Edan began prying open the wooden coffin with a metal crowbar that had laid atop of it. The wood creaked and bent, until it flung off with a loud crack. Duncan's eyebrows rose as he beheld what lay inside-—or rather: who lay inside. It was a man, pale after being gripped by death, and with eyes closed. He was young, hardly even past his twentieth birthday. He was wearing a suit of leather armor, and around his neck hung a dog tag. In the light, Duncan read this man to be 'Neil Garth', a Fairlander like himself. Duncan looked between the dead man and Edan, his eyes full of question. And Edan answered before he could even ask.
“Neil Garth, the second in command of Sigfried Müller.” his face was stone as he spoke, his stern eyes staring down upon the dead man “He is the entire reason I'm here, in Casserton. I didn't come here to settle down and live life as just another farmer. I came here to find this fool, and question him. I did so, right here, in this mausoleum. I fractured his kneecaps and broke three of his fingers; only then would he begin speaking. He told me where Sigfried had gone to. Nightweald. Lonelight, from what I could tell from his senseless whimpering.” his eyes narrowed, and his nose wrinkled “I snapped his neck when I was done with him.”
Duncan stared wordlessly at Edan for a few moments, eyes wide, mouth ajar. He wanted to speak, but every time he did, he gave only silence. He stared at Edan, and saw himself. He saw himself in Aegon, the day those witch hunters came knocking on their door. The day that he pulled that trigger, and took the life of another man. He felt as if the recoil rushed through his arm again and again and again, the gunshot endlessly echoing inside him. He remembered feeling only furious at the time, but now when he saw it all from another perspective, he saw the atrocity of it all. He felt sick, and wanted to vomit. And in a way, he did.
“You... you just killed him? Just like that?” thoughts of his family came rushing through; the life he could have lived, the sons and daughters he could have had, now all but a faded hope, an unreality, all because of one man's lust for revenge.
“People usually die when they have their necks snapped, yes.” Edan continued, sounding so sickeningly indifferent. He looked towards Duncan, and for a moment, Duncan feared that he was going to snap his neck too “Is there a problem with this, Duncan? You said you wanted to help me get my revenge. This was a necessary step in the process of doing exactly that. Don't you see?”
“But what had he done?” Duncan gestured wildly to the dead man “This man—-what had he done to you, that you had to kill him? Edan, this isn't justice! This is murder!” an epiphany came crashing down upon him “Wait... the rumors. The murderer that everyone is talking about-—it's you, isn't it?”
Edan sighed through his nose “Neil here did have some friends and family in the area, who were worried when he disappeared. So they blamed it on the Myaani, of course.” he snorted “Racist fuckers.”
Now Duncan realized why this place smelled so much of death—-a man had been murdered here, and the murderer stood only a few feet from him. He shook his head, quickly turning away “Edan, this is wrong. I... I can't be a part of this.”
“Really? Are you backing out already?” Edan turned his piercing stare towards him, a vicious sneer upon his face “And you call yourself a soldier.”
“Shut up!” Duncan snapped towards Edan, his blood on fire “If soldiers kill their fellow man, then I was never a soldier in the first place, and will never be! I fight for my homeland, for my family, for justice-—but this? Look at him, for gods' sakes! He was hardly even a man, and you killed him! Killed him, Edan!!”
“And what of it?!” Edan snapped right back, shoving Duncan against the stone wall “I don't give a shit about how young he was—-he helped the man who killed my friends, my wife; my unborn child! I would have had a family, Duncan! I simply took from him what he and Sigfried took from me!”
Duncan lashed out and grabbed the crowbar on the altar, gripping it with hands that glistened in a thin layer of sweat “You stay back, you monster.” Duncan's breath was heavy, laden with adrenaline that surged through his body “You stay back, or I swear I will cave your face in if I have to.”
Edan laughed, his voice full of putrid entertainment “Oh look-—who's the murderer now? I thought valiant soldiers like yourself only killed demons. Am I a demon, Duncan? Am I?”
Duncan didn't answer that. He backed away, and pushed open the door behind him, his stare never leaving Edan's eyes. He saw the smile that adorned his face, and wanted to break it with the crowbar in his hands. However, that smile quickly faded as he seemed to have seen something behind Duncan.
“...Duncan...” Edan said, but didn't get to finish before Duncan snapped around to see what he was staring at. For a second, he didn't believe what he saw. Staring into bloodshot eyes, he felt his veins go icy cold, and he couldn't feel his heart beat any longer. Time seemed to slow down as he stood there, disbelieving, but he couldn't deny that filthy smell of a demon's breath. His mind flashed back to the rampage that had taken place in the tavern in Westport, and the demon he had seen there—this one was just alike. The one that stood before him, a trooper, with dark saliva engulfing its jagged maw, eyes full of ungodly hunger. It was only when he heard a throaty growl escape it that he realized what danger he was in—-quick as a viper, he raised the crowbar and hammered it against the demon's skull, feeling the exo-skeleton collapse under the steel.
It let out a shriek so loud Duncan felt as if his eardrums popped, but he continued smashing the crowbar against the demon nonetheless, again and again and again, sending black blood flying everywhere, splattering against his clothes, reddening his hair. The demon staggered backwards, tumbling unto its back and into a patch of grass—-but not even here did Duncan stop. His rage was an inferno that felt as if it would never die, never ceasing to fuel the strength he put behind the swings. Every time he felt a piece of bone crack, he felt like bursting out in sadistic laughter, and the black blood that splashed unto his face gave him an unreal sense of satisfaction. It was only when he felt Edan's hands around him, ripping him away from the onslaught, that he stopped fighting. He was sent tumbling across the grass, stopped only by a tombstone on his way.
“ARE YOU MAD?!” Edan's voice was almost a slur, his head buzzing with a murderous intoxication, his ears feeling as if they were still popped. Duncan looked up at Edan, and saw his wide eyes well with ferocious anger. He didn't resist as he grasped him by his collar, forcing him to his feet.
“Look me in the eyes and tell me you're not insane!” Edan demanded, but Duncan really couldn't see why he was so angry. He had just slain another demon, another scout, the same kind that had butchered those nine people in Westport. But when he looked towards his kill, his anger died out, slain by a sudden gust of anguish that seemed to twist his stomach, and clench the life out of his heart.
What he saw lying in the grass, was no demon. It was a woman. A woman, draped in a cheap linen dress, now smothered in her own blood. It was no longer the black blood of hell, but the red blood of a fellow human being. She lay there, deathly still, her face a ruined mess of torn flesh and broken bone. Duncan couldn't move. He felt as if he had died as well, and his muscles had begun to rot. But no matter how much he wished he was dead, here he was, alive, unlike the woman that lay in the grass before him. He refused to believe it. He clenched his eyes shut and prayed to wake up from this nightmare, but he never did. He felt tears squeeze out and roll down his cheeks that flared red like the fire that once goaded him into this dreadful sin. The word 'insanity' rolled around in his mind, taunting him, mocking him.
“I don't understand.” he whimpered, gasping between each weep, his knees feeling weak—if Edan didn't hold him by his collar, he would surely have slumped together by now “I don't understand. It was a demon. It was a demon, damnit!”
“No, it wasn't.” Edan growled through his teeth and shoved at Duncan, letting him fall unto his backside. He stared down at him with new-found spite in his eyes, his face full of disgust mixed with pity “But you thought it was. Good gods, Duncan. You're more broken than I thought.”
Duncan tumbled over, falling unto his side, into the soft grass that tickled his cheeks and got in his eyes. He shook, nearly falling into seizure, wrought in confusion and fear and alienation of who he was. He couldn't even recognize himself any longer. He felt his tears rolling down his cheeks and getting in his mouth. Was this what insanity tasted like?
As Edan picked him up and slung him over his shoulder, he didn't even resist. His body felt numb, and his mind even more so. In a slur of tears, he stared at the woman he had pummeled to death in his insanity. She may have had kids-—a husband too. And now that husband no longer had a wife, and the kids no longer a mother.
All because of you, Duncan. All because of you.