Vyacheslav tapped impatiently on the hilt of his sword, the tip dug into the mud between the granite tiles at his feet. His breath was steady, his eyes ever lingering on the manor before him, his heart beat quiet like a jaguar lurking in the underbrush, ready to pounce as soon as the prey had turned its back. The Umbral manor was undoubtedly one of the more recognizable manors in all of the Sanctuary, and Vyacheslav hated every single brick of it. It rose tall into the sky, several oily black spires standing like bony fingers. The facade seemed almost to meld with the night, one large shadow among thousands others, and taking upon itself a strangely cathedral-like appearance. Mosaic windows, black gargoyles on every surface, rain drops dripping from their ferocious teeth. Vyacheslav's gaze rose even further, up to the heavens themselves, blackened with the high of night and the overshadowing of omnipresent rain clouds. He felt the droplets on his face, but after living a few years in this place, he—and everyone else—had stopped wincing. The way the clouds coiled, and the air felt ominously electric, Vyacheslav knew with certainty. A storm was coming.
“Time is running out.” Edan Wolfe said, standing there at his side, his flinty stare turned on the inky face of the Umbral manor as well “They've been in there too long already. Gods know what the hell they're doing in there, but it can't be good.”
Ramund huffed from Vyacheslav's right “I would lift my spirits a little if I were you, Lieutenant Wolfe. I cannot speak for Pavlov, but Duncan and Rose have been through worse. My faith remains strong.”
Wolfe gave a displeased grunt, but said nothing in return. The waiting game continued. Vyacheslav watched as his commanders trod around the soaked Umbral courtyard, gathering all the soldiers in strict regiments, preparing them for what was to come. His elite took the vanguard, for if there was blood to be shed, Vyacheslav made sure that the Umbrals would stare into Krov eyes, and know who undid them. The only thing that kept his forces at bay, was the empty garden behind this black metal fence, where the flowers and ferns and trees were yet unsullied by battle. But this was not to last. As soon as Matvey was pulled from Theodor's talons, the owl would know the serpent's bite.
Light footsteps approached from behind, not the heavy stomp of sabatons, but the rhythmic click of high heels striking granite. Vyacheslav didn't have to turn around to know who it was, nor even spare her a glance as she took her place beside him.
“You are a fool to trust these weak-bloods, dear husband.” she said, her voice carrying a dominance that would match even Vyacheslav's, an authority that could shrink the soul of any she spoke too—and in the past, it had. Vyacheslav had long since become immune to the slithering of her tongue as she spoke, but it had been a long and painful process, like becoming immune to snake venom by exposing one's self to it every single day. He noticed how both Ramund and Wolfe turned to face this sudden new appearance, and only then did Vyacheslav spare her a glance.
“I was an even greater fool to trust Theodor. Because of him, I've let our son be captured, and I've executed an innocent man. I've little sympathy for Cercy, but it was not just, regardless of what xenophobia he had expressed in the past.” he said, his voice monotone and dark, suppressing the anger inside him that was biding its time to burst.
He looked her over once, and saw that she had dressed quite nicely for the occasion. High heels, as always, but the skirted leather coat matching his own—though shorter—laid over the black and red corset was something new. Blood red jewels adorned with shards of onyx were embedded in her short female horns, and even the tuft on her tail carried trappings of the same colors, black and red. Her fangs were hidden behind red lips that seemed as if they had never smiled, and from Vyacheslav's perspective, it could sometimes seem as if she had forgotten how to. Pale white hair slithered down her chest like albino serpents, while the rest was a flowing avalanche washing down her back. What truly bothered and amazed Vyacheslav at the same time, was that she never failed to dress up for every occasion. No matter how terrible a situation was, she would always find a way to dress accordingly. Even this. Even when her own son's life hung upon a thin thread, it could always wait 'till she had put on the right clothes and set her hair correctly.
“And I can see the rescue is going well.” she said with no small amount of sarcasm in her voice. Her vicious eyes drifted across the minor army that Vyacheslav had assembled here, before the black iron gates of House Umbral “You've summoned the elite, and everything. Now all you're missing, is to actually do something productive, such as bringing back our son.”
Vyacheslav sneered, baring his left fang at his wife “Stay your tongue before you've educated yourself on the situation, woman. Pavlov is in there as we speak, doing what he does best. We'll see our son soon enough, I have no doubt. And when we do, Theodor—and the rest of this damned realm—will know to think twice when crossing the Zakadievs.”
Vyacheslav's teeth gritted and his breath grew heavy, but he suppressed himself. He never sheathed his blade, but he sheathed his wrath, for now. He turned to look between Ramund and Wolfe, who were both pretending not to pay attention to him and his wife, but they were both horribly bad at it. He cleared his throat, and gestured to the two, eyes on his wife “Perhaps you'd like to introduce yourself?”
Ramund and Wolfe both looked over their shoulders, their attentions piqued, but the Krov lady took one look at them and sneered “Perhaps not. I like to remain at a professional distance toward the plebs.” she grouched and eyed Ramund with particular disdain, perhaps not too pleased to be put before someone who was taller than herself, yet not of noble birth.
“Well then I'll do it for you.” Vyacheslav snarled irritably, as he turned to face Wolfe and Ramund “Introducing: my hag of a wife. Her name is Nadezhda, but I'm sure she would prefer to simply be referred to as 'my lady'.”
While Wolfe gave nothing but a nod and a polite “My lady.”, Ramund did the same, but with an elegant and respectful bow as well. Nadezhda gave neither the honor of reciprocation, but she didn't scold them for not bowing low enough either, so she must have been in a good mood, Vyacheslav figured.
Suddenly, he heard shouts and stomping coming from another end of the courtyard. Ramund, Wolfe, and even Nadezhda turned to look at what was going on, but from here, all any of them could see, was the shuffling of soldiers making way for... something. It was only when it came closer, that Vyacheslav recognized his own son... both of them.
“Matvey!” the name burst from his lips as he saw his sons come pushing through the steel crowd, Pavlov shoving through them and Matvey following shortly after—upon Rose's shoulder, albeit. Duncan helped Pavlov push aside the soldiers, voice raised for them to get out the way, right until they stood before Vyacheslav, all four of them.
“Mission accomplished.” Pavlov said as he skidded to a halt, and quickly popped an exaggerated salute “It got a little hairy the last few seconds, but we pulled through it... well, Rose did. Credit must be given where credit is due, hm?”
Vyacheslav's lips rose in a huge, feral smile as he saw Rose set Matvey down, and Nadezhda rushing to embrace the young boy, who was clearly scared out of his mind. Vyacheslav, on the other hand, rushed forward to embrace not Matvey, but Rose. With one hand, he held her entire body close to his chest, her face suddenly buried in his leather raiment.
“We will not forget this service you have given us. I forgive you, for how we first met. I have clearly misjudged you, human.” he let her go, making her stumble backwards in confusion about what just happened. Vyacheslav now turned to the army he had assembled, his furious smile growing ever wider as he thrust his blade into the air and raised his voice.
“Men! Women! Loyal soldiers of mine! You stand at the edge of history! By your blades, we carve ourselves a new chapter in the tale of this beautiful city! By your blades, we rid ourselves of the filth, the dishonor, and the injustice that this house has wrought! For the good of this realm, and for righteousness itself, I, Vyacheslav of Zakadiev, condone this execution!” he roared, to which the army roared back, a hundred steel feet stomping, a hundred swords and spears brought high in battle fervor. The march began, thundering, and the metal gates would not last long under the force of Zakadiev wrath. Vyacheslav spun on his heel, facing Duncan, Rose, Pavlov, and Nadezhda “You four, take care of Matvey. Ramund, Wolfe, bless us with your participation, and join us in victory. Today, we bring an end to the owl's reign of puppet strings and lies.”
He didn't wait to hear what they had to say, as he turned to face the Umbral manor once more, to see how his men brought low the steel gates like were they made of sticks and rope. Glory was indeed at hand, and in one of the windows that stood above the marching army, Vyacheslav saw his prize. His prey. Theodor Umbral, the king of owls.
Vyacheslav, even from down here, could smell his fear. He could see the dread in Theodor's eyes, seeping in between the parasites that crept around in his irises. A truly monstrous grin split Vyacheslav's face in half, his fangs bared to the gums, and they hungered for only one man's flesh. Theodor quickly turned around and fled from the window, but that wasn't going to save him. The hunt was on.
Vyacheslav's entire body suddenly began to emit some strange white steam, like mist. His left hand clutched as he swallowed up the energies that resided in the world around him, letting himself become a conduit of its power. He bent his knees, his left foot sliding back over the soaked granite pavement, and the air around him seemed to warp and twitch, as if he was bending reality itself. His teeth gritted, and even more steam spilled through them, slithering down his braided beard. And when the magic inside him reached its crescendo, he unleashed it all. His form collapsed on itself and suddenly bolted upwards as if shot from a cannon, hurling through the air as nothing but a pale ball of mist. He smashed into the window, but didn't as much as leave a crack in it; his misty body seeped effortlessly through, before returning to flesh, leather, and steel on the other side.
“Run, then!” Vyacheslav roared as he reformed in the blink of an eye, clothes, flesh, blade, and all “Fly, little owl! Fly, and tell yourself that you can evade me. Lying seems to come naturally to you, after all.”
He stood in one of the many corridors of the Umbral manor, this one on a higher floor with a window view of the entire mist-swept city around them. And before him stood Theodor, a delicious look of horror on his pale face. His hands were shivering and his forehead glimmered sweatily in the light of a nearby candle. Both hands were extended, and on them, deep blue magic coiled.
“You can't do this, Vyacheslav... this is murder!” Theodor's voice cracked and sputtered, his lips quivering “My family had no part in this!”
Vyacheslav began to make his way forward, heavy steps bringing him closer, a predatory menace that seemed almost to thicken the shadows around him “The order has been given, and the deed shall be done. I will personally make sure that the name of Umbral will only be remembered with hatred and disdain, when every last one of you have joined Anton at the gallows. But you... you won't have the mercy of a noose. You're mine, Theodor.” the grip of his blade tightened, and his eyes flared “Mine!”
He bolted forward, steps so violent they put cracks in the floor with every step, before he brought down his blade on Theodor—but to no avail. Theodor lashed out with his right hand, forming a small and focused barrier of magic that deflected Vyacheslav's blade. But Vyacheslav's fury was unending. The blade returned in the fraction of a second later, rushing in from below, but once again Theodor formed a barrier, constantly pushing away Vyacheslav's strikes. Like a hurricane beating against a city wall, Vyacheslav's assault was relentless, no matter how many strikes Theodor managed to block. Again and again and again steel met magic, but Theodor's defense was unsteady. Step by step, he was forced backward by Vyacheslav's rage, closer and closer to the wall on the other side of the corridor. It was a dead end, save for a few doors on either side, but it was clear to them both that this would end badly for Theodor, if continued.
Vyacheslav stared into the parasite-infested eyes of Theodor, and could not stop smiling. His leather coat flailed and whipped as his blade flew to all sides, slashing up the portraits and the bookshelves around him, even the wooden walls themselves. But suddenly, much sooner than Theodor clearly had anticipated, there were no more steps to take backward. The wall was met. Vyacheslav burst out in manic laughter.
“Cornered already, little bird?! This is too easy!” he screamed and brought back his blade for a heavier strike that he was certain would power straight through Theodor's defenses—and to some degree, it did. Theodor did not raise his hand to block the strike, but instead, the blade met nothing but black vapor. In the blink of an eye, Theodor had dissolved, and Vyacheslav snapped.
“Not this time!” he shouted and thrust his hand forward, latching unto the magic residue that Theodor had left in his wake. With but a second of focus, listening to and understanding the magic's fabric, Vyacheslav managed to grip its essence—and in that second, he too disappeared into black vapor.
Once again, he bolted through reality, as a shadow this time, rather than an orb of mist. Through walls and even the very fabric of the world itself, his ethereal body was a bullet that traced after Theodor. Not even half a second passed before he was shot out the other end.
Hundreds of blades clashed all around him, the smell of sweat and blood everywhere, drowning out the soft scent of varnished mahogany. The floors moaned and pounded under the weight of countless heavy sabatons stomping away. He had plummeted right into the heat of the ongoing battle, where two steel tides met, under the bright light of a chandelier. It was like a church, here in the main hall of the Umbral manor, with more than enough space for the Zakadiev and the Umbral forces alike. The door was broken down, and chaos had erupted.
“THEODOR!!” Vyacheslav roared over the war cries of the men around him, his feline eyes flinging over their heads to spot that one inky black lord with skin like porcelain. An Umbral soldier rushed for him, blade drawn, but Vyacheslav felled him without even half a thought, as if it was mere reflex. He saw Ramund among the crowd, but the old Mjaln wasn't partaking in the fighting; he was carrying wounded soldiers away and breathing life back into them with his magic. Edan Wolfe was nowhere to be seen.
There was blood everywhere, and every second step Vyacheslav took in his search for Theodor was placed on a dead soldier, Zakadiev and Umbral both. He took great pleasure in seeing his elite soldiers partaking in the battle, flintlocks and slender sabers thrown into elaborate, deadly dance. They were a storm of steel, lead, and gunpowder, trained to such efficiency that taking on five foes at the same time seemed almost effortless. There was not a single part of their bodies idle in the battle; even their tails whipped and lashed out at their enemies, dazing and tripping them. Blood spattered unto their gargoyle masks, and by the look in the enemies' eyes, it was clear to see that they knew they were fighting a monster.
Only then, did Vyacheslav notice. One of the doors in the side of the hall were flung open, and Theodor's black velvets were seen darting through. Vyacheslav's eyes sharpened as he shoved soldiers aside, pushing through the steel masses with some difficulty. He snarled angrily—he was losing him! It was only after he had slashed some bold fool's neck to bits that his path was cleared and his hunt could resume. He bounded for the door, and ripped it open.
But as soon as he slammed it shut behind him, he felt himself be torn right off his feet, hurled through the air by the wrath of magic. Dim candles scattered across the empty parlor were extinguished as he came crashing into a bookshelf in the other end of the room. He groaned as he slid to the floor, staggered by the ambush. His eyes rose to meet him, Theodor, who stood by the closed door, panting wildly, blue magical residue coiling around his open palm. Sweat trickled down his forehead, and it was clear that he knew running wasn't going to do him much good.
“Choosing to bite back, hm?” Vyacheslav growled as he staggered to his feet, leaning on his blade as he did. Despite the jerking pain that consumed the left side of his ribcage, he felt no diminish in his desire for bloodshed. Only more, if anything.
“The trinket truly has put madness in your little brain, Theodor. Bow your head and I'll make this quick.”
Theodor's teeth gritted, and he took a step forward, both fists alight with deep blue magical fire “I didn't want it to get this violent, but you leave me no choice, Vyacheslav. Your trinket has given me more power than anyone in this realm—if not this entire world! Once I'm done with you, I'll wipe out your little entourage, make your elite eat each other for my amusement... and then I'll take the rest of this damned city. I have the power. You know I can.”
Vyacheslav snorted satirically, incredulously, as he raised his blade once more, taking a step forward as well, his leather shoes muffled in the soft carpet below “No, you think you can, and that's all there is to it. That trinket is feeding you insanity, Theodor, giving you delusions of omnipotence and grandeur... more than you had already, anyway.”
Theodor spat on the delicate floors “You'll eat those words, you snake... and then you'll eat your own son. They say that Krov don't feed on other Krov, but when I've broken your knees and snapped your sword, you'll suck him dry... and you'll enjoy it.”
Vyacheslav felt a burst inside him; it was the feeling of reason leaving him. His veins were aflame with anger, and he could find no words to express his rage; he chose to speak through action, as he hurled himself at Theodor, his blade brought high for a guillotine strike. But Theodor was a matador to Vyacheslav's charging bull. In the very second that Vyacheslav brought down the hungry sword, Theodor hands opened up, still ignited with primal blue flame—a force that would tear that sword from Vyacheslav's hands, as Theodor smashed both hands together. A shock wave washed over the parlor, making the whole place jump as if an earthquake had struck. The chairs danced and the bookshelves regurgitated books unto the floor. But most important of all, was the blade that was whistling through the air.
Vyacheslav's rage had lead him to foolishness. He should have seen this coming, but the blood lust had blinded him, and now he was reaping what seeds he had sown. His blade dug into the wall across the room, far beyond reach. He was disarmed, put off balance, and though parasites were filling Theodor's eyes, they did not blind him to the opportunity.
Vyacheslav felt his entire body suddenly stiffen, as if he had been taken by rigor mortis. A layer of deep blue magic smothered every surface of him, as Theodor extended his right hand, the very same bustling blue flame engulfing it. Vyacheslav's neck stretched out, and even his fingers were sprawled, as Theodor's magic gripped him, lifting him a few inches over the carpeted floor. Theodor's face split in a sadistic grin, and Vyacheslav tried to speak, but could only mutter strangled groans.
“I've got you in my talons, little serpent.” Theodor snarled, and Vyacheslav knew he was purposefully imitating him, just to mock him “Wriggle and writhe as much as you want. You're mine now. I could snap your neck here and now if I wanted to... but I promised to make you suffer, didn't I?”
Vyacheslav's teeth gritted and he tried vainly to speak, all before he suddenly felt a violent jerk in his body, smashing him against the bookshelves once more. Like a puppet, Theodor had absolute control over Vyacheslav's body, and the sadist inside him couldn't help but make that all too clear. Vyacheslav forced out a furious roar as Theodor sent his body crashing into everything, into the ceiling and unto the floor, repeatedly hammering into the bookshelves until his noble blood lay in scattered blotches all over the parlor.
“It doesn't matter how much chaos I make today; when you're all dead, I will write myself into the history books, and I will write how much of a hero I've been! And you... little but a nuisance, Zakadiev. A pest from distant lands, come here to assume dominance over a people as old as the world itself. All of you damned bloodsuckers will be seen as nothing but vermin, Vyacheslav. Vermin!” he howled, just as he flung Vyacheslav against the wall, aiming to finally break his neck, as promised.
But it was not Vyacheslav who met that wall. It was mist. A sudden puff of mist washed over the elegant wood, and when Theodor realized that he had lost the arcane grip on Vyacheslav, it was already too late. The Krov lord appeared from the mist like a ghost behind Theodor, and though Theodor was quick to spin around to face him, Vyacheslav's hand was a serpent that lashed for his throat. He nearly tore Theodor's windpipe clean out as he smashed him unto the floor before him, his eyes now looking even more vicious with the blood that trickled down around them, leaving long red lines marring his hungry face.
“Vermin?! You don't know when to stop talking, you swine! Maybe if I break your throat, we can put a change to that!” he shouted, raising his leather shoe and hammering it down where he had previously gripped Theodor; or so it would have been, if Theodor did not disappear into a black puff of smoke again. Vyacheslav grunted.
“You're becoming predictable.” he said, and quickly raised his open hand toward the sword in the wall, across the room. In a flash, it turned into a small cloud of mist and rushed to Vyacheslav's hand, where it materialized—and just in time. He snatched the essence of the smoke once more, fickle and fading as it was, and sent himself spiraling after Theodor, riding the arcane trace that he had left behind him.
Iridescent moonlight poured in from windowless holes in the walls around him, heavy raindrops following. Vyacheslav's pupils widened to absorb the cloudy moonlight, to see what place he had thrown himself into now. He stood in the center of a circular room where chilling winds swept right through from the outside; the holes in the walls were like church windows, but without the glass, and the ceiling was so low he could stand on his toes to reach it. Only then did he realize how high up he was. The tallest spire of the Umbral manor gave an unrestricted view over the entire city, from the slums to the residential districts; from the quiet market in the distance to the very garden before the manor. The rising wind howled around him, screaming like banshees, biting icily at his skin. But in stark contrast to the cold, he suddenly felt a blast of heat scorch him from behind.
A roar of agony was forced from his throat, and he staggered forward, nearly losing the grip of his sword. A disturbed flutter of winds rose all around him, owls in the dozens, perched in cages scattered across the cramped circular spire room, on the floor or hanging from the ceiling. Vyacheslav did not pay it much mind, though, not while the flesh on his back sizzled, the heat having blasted right through his leather coat. He stumbled forward and fell to his knees before one of the glassless windows; they were so close to the floor that one wrong step would mean a swift descent into Morrin's arms. He stared down over the edge, seeing the ants below, the clashing soldiers in the hundreds, and felt a rush of vertigo boil up inside him.
“Fire...” Theodor's voice reminded him why he was here. He swiftly turned around, now sitting up against the wall, flanked by caged owls on either side of him. Theodor stood across the rain-soaked floors that gleamed in pale moonlight, illuminating his shadowy frame. But the light of fire contributed, a handful of flame roiling around in his palm, flickering hungrily.
“...Not an attunement I make much use of, I admit.” he said calmly, moving closer through the shadows with silver trappings, his infested eyes digging madly into Vyacheslav's own “But there are times where I must set aside the tricks, the traps... and go straight to the cremation.” while the magical flame grew in his right hand, his left rose to show the stolen trinket, which now glowed with the same fiery color “And with this,” Theodor said, the moonlight shimmering in his ruthless smile “I can cremate the rest of your pestilent family with you!”
Vyacheslav's heart jumped as Theodor's flame suddenly rose to become a sheer inferno, a roaring ball as large as himself, which he then hurled straight at Vyacheslav. The heat alone, before he had even thrown it, felt as if it could singe his skin right off; and now the whole thing was rushing straight at him. Cat-like instincts and reflexes threw him to the side, knocking over a few owl cages and sending one of them plummeting over the nearest window's edge. Vyacheslav could feel the hairs of his tail curl up in wake of the heat that passed him by and washed out over the wall like a wave crashing against the pier. He struggled to his feet, but the agonizing pain in his back crippled his every movement—it was a stroke of luck that he could dodge like that, and he wasn't certain he could do it again.
“You're a dead snake now, Vyacheslav!” Theodor shouted, and with just one snap of his right hand fingers, he ignited another ball in his hand, accumulating to the vicious size faster than anything Vyacheslav had witnessed before “Slither all you want, you know just as well as I that you can't keep it up! But me... I can do this all day, thanks to this pretty piece of jewelry. Thank you, old friend, for making this so EASY!” he laughed, violently and loudly, as he hurled another ball of fire at Vyacheslav. And this time, there was no dodging. The ball roared like a lion as it struck, consuming the entire half of the spire's apex. Vyacheslav's powerful frame was swallowed up by the flames, every trace of him swept away in one fell swoop.
Or so it seemed, at first. Dozens of owls were incinerated under the hungry wrath of the fire, but amid the scorched cages, there was a single figure yet standing. Fire consumed him whole, from horns to tail, but reduced none of it. It could have been a scorched husk, but as he stepped forward and out of the flames, that thought was crushed. That was when he held it forth: the twin to Theodor's amulet. Cut in half, there had to be another side to match—and here it was. Vyacheslav's voracious stare opened up inside the flames, and his sword shined in the bustling firelight.
“I should have used this from the beginning.” his voice was that of a demon through the crackling of the fire “It would have made all this so much less... bothersome. Time to end this, Theodor.”
“So that is how you want to play.” Theodor growled, as Vyacheslav almost effortlessly dispersed the flames with a single wave of the hand in which he held the trinket—in spite of the wrathful fire, he stood completely unscathed, save for the savage burn on his back “Fine! So I get to have an extra challenge; I like that! Show me what you've got!” he shouted and brought back his hand to create another ball, but not even half a second passed before Vyacheslav was upon him. The force that he laid into his sword slashed right through the owl king's wrist, dismembering his hand in one clean strike. Theodor's expression jerked, shock stunning him, and his magic faded in that very moment.
A second strike rushed in shortly after, cutting off the other hand in which he held the amulet, forcing him to drop it. Vyacheslav's steps were steady, uncompromising, his murderous stare burying itself into Theodor's horrified eyes. Theodor moved backward, step by step, more stumbling than anything. He stared down at his bleeding wrists, dread and confusion stealing the tongue that had otherwise been so rich on mockery and audacity. The tongue that had tricked thousands was now nothing but silent, save for the occasional terrified whimper. His steps came to a sudden stop, as he felt the hard winds behind him; he now stood upon the edge of the gleaming floors, one step away from a merciless plummet through the glassless window.
“You've given me quite the exercise, Theodor.” Vyacheslav spoke through his fanged grin as he approached the frightened lord, his blade lowered but his eyes were thirsty as always “It has been a while since I got to swing the sword like this. It can get so dull sometimes, sitting at the desk all day and night, sifting through paperwork. Thank you, Theodor, for making me feel so...” he breathed in deep through his nose “...alive.”
“I think we're done here.” he interrupted, just as his grin grew an extra inch across his face “Let me see you fly, little owl.”
Theodor hardly even got to react, before Vyacheslav kicked his chest so violently he could feel ribs snapping underneath his shoe. Theodor's face lit up in dread, and it was clear to see that he tried to grip the edge of the windows to save himself, but without hands, no such thing was possible. Vyacheslav watched in what felt like slow motion, as Theodor toppled over the edge. A final stumble brought him low, and with one last dreadful cry, he was sent flailing wildly to the world below.
The song of swords was at its crescendo, in the great Umbral hall. The Zakadiev forces marched viciously on the Umbral defenders, and though they fought valiantly, the Umbrals were no match for the relentless advance of the Zakadievs—especially not with the elite taking the vanguard, armored demons they were, bringers of death that knew no satisfaction. Their masked faces set an unearthly dread in the hearts of enemies and allies alike—Wolfe could vouch for this. Every time he caught eyes with those steel gargoyle masks, he felt his veins run cold, despite knowing that they would do him no harm... that, at least, was what his voice of reason told him. What his heart told him, was something quite else.
Sweat ran down his cheeks and neck, though at this point, he wasn't quite certain if it was sweat of blood. The carpets at his feet that once were black had taken on a dark red hue, and they were wet as if they had been rained upon. They had, but not with water. Shattered porcelain crunched under his steps as he powered his way through the Zakadiev ranks, not charging for the deadly vanguard, but away from it—he was not here to kill, he knew this. His—that being his and his companions'—agenda did indeed match with Lord Zakadiev's will to take down Theodor and the rest of the Umbral house, but not nearly enough that Wolfe would take lives for it. Today, he would do quite the opposite.
Armor rattled as he dropped another unconscious Zakadiev soldier outside the wide open doors before the Umbral manor, where Zakadiev forces rushed in to join the bloodshed. The battle had been going on for nearly half an hour now, and still they were fighting; it was as if there was no end to neither Zakadiev nor Umbral forces. So many had been killed that blood was starting to trickle out through the front doors that yawned wide open. It took only one look through the open doors to see the front lines, where another life was taken every minute. The Zakadievs, lead by the monstrous elite, were marching up a baroque wooden staircase that Wolfe could swear would crack under their weight at any time.
“There is no end to this.” Ramund's voice, despite his words, was a refuge of sanity in this all-consuming chaos. He trudged around the grassy garden, where flowers and ferns were wet and glimmering in the gentle moonlight, much like Ramund himself. The winds were rising and the skies wept—Wolfe could feel the electric tingle in the air, and knew that a storm was coming. Ramund had neatly organized all the wounded soldiers he could find in a strict grid that filled up the entire outside garden, and Wolfe had just added one more to the list. His old eyes swept across the wounded, trying to find the ones who needed his magic the most. Some lay completely still, perhaps finally having lost their grip on life, while others sat up and demanded to be let back into the fight, despite suffering from grievous wounds just as well.
“I was thinking just the same.” Wolfe chimed as he stood there before the gathered wounded. He wiped some sweat off his forehead, and saw how it was indeed blood; not his own, though, but that of dozens others he had hauled on his shoulders. He could feel his body was no longer that of an indomitable warrior, despite how much he liked to think otherwise.
“But I think we both know that is not the case.” he followed up, breathing out a long sigh “Sooner or later, someone is going to run out of bodies to throw into that meat grinder.” he turned an eye on the battle merely a stone throw ahead of him, and saw a man's skull explode as one of the Zakadiev elites put a bullet in it “And it won't be us.”
“Us?” Ramund turned his tired stare on Wolfe, standing a few meters away, surrounded by moaning, groaning soldiers “This is not our battle, Wolfe, do not forget that. Indeed, it is in our interest that Theodor is put out of the game... but this is manslaughter. I cannot say for you, but I am only here to chip away on the death count as best I can.”
Wolfe ran a hand through his short, greying hair, and felt how it was wet with blood “This is not our battle, true.” he echoed “But this is our war. We've done Lord Zakadiev quite the favor in unveiling the captor of his son—that's bound to score us some points. Seeing his elite plow down the Umbrals like were they blades of grass, I get the feeling that they'd make worthy assets in our rebellion.”
While Wolfe spoke, Ramund knelt down before one of the wounded soldiers, and lay his hand on a bloody gash in his stomach. He was whimpering and sputtering prayers to Morrin, but as Ramund's hand began to glow verdant green, he shut up.
“I wonder,” Ramund said while filling up the soldier's gut with rejuvenating magic “why we are not blessed with the company of the Tu'Myaa. The Zakadievs were impressively quick to react, indeed, but I would have expected that the chieftain and his mend would be, just as well.”
Wolfe sat down on the wet staircase leading up to the Umbral front doors “What's to wonder about? You know how Myaani are... if things like these do not directly concern them, then they'll keep their hands clean. In their eyes, this is all just human politics in action—nothing they'd want to take any side in. Besides... I'm sure Lord Zakadiev has it all under control. All he needs to do now, is survive.”
It was in that moment, that the sound of glass shattering broke through the roar of battle, the thunder of sabatons, the clash of razor steel. Wolfe snapped a look over his shoulder, just in time to see a black figure come crashing down from the roof of the great hall, through a glass dome all the way up there. His heart lurched as the figure struck the floor, mosaic glass raining down upon him from above—it was Theodor!
“Lyrras' breath!” he bounded to his feet and rushed up the staircase, eyes locked on Theodor who lay there, eyes wide and unblinking, blood trickling from dismembered wrists. He gave no word to Ramund, sparing no moment for hesitation as he hurried across the glass-littered, blood-soaked carpet.
“Stand back!” he ordered, the lieutenant in him waking up, despite that he knew he had no authority over these men. Soldiers that weren't busy taking lives flocked around the fallen lord, and Wolfe had to shove his way through to get a better look. Once he stood in the rapidly growing circle around Theodor, he saw how there was no breath on the lord's lips, no pulse in his veins. His porcelain skin was ripped and torn from the shards of glass, and most of his limbs lay twisted at an unnatural angle. No one could have survived that kind of fall. Theodor was no exception.
“Ohhh, goodie!” Wolfe looked over his shoulder and saw the soldiers behind him were stepping aside, making way for the tall and elegantly dressed wife of Vyacheslav, Nadezhda. Her gentle hands rubbed together and her vicious eyes flared in sheer delight, fangs exposed in an excited smile “Look at you, Theodor! Look at you, breathless, lifeless...” her feline eyes fell to his wrists “...Handless. Did someone clip your wings, dear owl?” she stood before him, taller than any of the soldiers surrounding her, planting her high-heeled shoe on his torn chest “Looks like my dear husband had his share of fun. Someone do something about the body... but bring me back the head. I think it would look good on a wooden pike in my front yard.”
As she turned around and left, the soldiers all nodded, mumbling 'yes madam' like a murder of crows would croak. Wolfe watched in silence as they collected Theodor's body, hoisting it unto their shoulders and marching out the front doors with it. Ramund stood in the doorway, a grave look in his eyes as he saw. They met eyes for a moment, and though Wolfe offered a victorious smile, Ramund did not.
Wolfe looked skyward, to the tall ceiling, so far above. The glass dome through which Theodor had fallen was shattered completely, nothing left but colored stumps in the fringes. But there was something more. A sound, faint through the noise of battle. Drifting on the winds, slow and yet so enthralling. Wolfe couldn't quite believe it at first, but the more he listened, the clearer it became. From somewhere above the mist, there it was, the gentle song of a violin.