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About Literature / Professional Member Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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(Contains: violence/gore)
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.
Vanguard, Chapter 25: Food For The War Beast
If there was ever a point of no return for Duncan, this must be it. In case you're reading this description without having read the chapter itself, then I won't spoil anything. This is a chapter I've really been looking forward to writing, so I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I have. And as always: thank you for reading!
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The dawn was pretty, some might say. The way it glistened in the dew of the green hills; the way it came down in slanted beams trough the leaves of nearby groves; the way it shimmered off the roiling surface of the rivers. Rose hadn't slept a second, so she had the pleasure of witnessing every single moment of this process. Even after all these years of being away from Nightweald, it was still an oddly alien thing, and seemed utterly unnatural... but beautiful nonetheless. Seeing the moon in Nightweald was a great enough thing in itself, but when you've spent most of your life in a land where the sun never rose, seeing it do so was truly indescribable. Sitting by the riverbank, right outside Agatha's house, she didn't want to blink, in fear of missing something important. She watched, staring upwards like a mouse looking out for hawks, the twinkling stars, and how they were slowly, gently pushed away by the dawning sun. The way the dark blue of the sky seamlessly turned into a pleasant red, then orange—just the way it was right now. Only half the sun had ascended the horizon, and Rose could look right at it without being blinded too badly. It was like a great ball of undying flame, creeping up from behind the green hills, shedding its glow all over the world. Rose sat there, her back against the wooden wall of Agatha's house, her feet dipping in the cool waters of the running river, witnessing the dawn. The rest of the world didn't know how spoiled it was, being born into the luxury of seeing a dawn at every morning, and a moon at every night. There were others who were not so lucky.

The river's water was cold, but she didn't mind. Her shoes were soaked thoroughly through, but somewhere, she enjoyed it. The cold was a pleasant change, and she considered going in with her entire body. Would she be swept away by the current to another place, far from here, far from everything? Would she knock her head on a rock on the way there and wake up as a drowned, lifeless body? Maybe she would. Maybe she wanted to find out.

But she was interrupted as the sound of footsteps came from around the corner. She quickly looked up, fearing that it might have been Duncan, and that she would have to face speaking with him again—-she wasn't ready for that. She wasn't even ready to enter the same house as him yet. But relief came washing through her body as she saw who it really was.

“My dear, aren't you getting cold out here?” Agatha's voice was soothing, and the smile on her face even more so. Rose looked up at the old woman from her seat in the grass, felling the cold water on her feet. She looked down at them, and slowly shook her head.

“No. Well, yes, but I don't mind. After spending years in The Wastelands, I've grown a liking to all things cold, really.” she looked up at Agatha, and tried to smile as she spoke. She had no quarrels with this woman... especially not since she reminded her so much of her own mother.
Agatha, with help of a walking stick, came to take a seat beside Rose. Her skinny figure was covered in a poncho of sorts, and a long, thick dress for cold nights. She looked out over the running river, her hands folded together on her lap “So the wastelands are really that bad?” she asked, turning a slow glance towards Rose.

Rose met it for a moment, then looked back over the river “Many would say so. Your son would say so. Ramund would say so too. It's bad, that's for sure, but it has its merits... the silence, for example.” she smiled slightly at the memory of the silent wastes, the endless crisp earth with no one to disturb her “It is always nicely silent out there. No one to talk to you, no one to bother you... some say the silence is maddening. I say it's soothing.”

Agatha took her time to answer. Rose could tell that she was still trying to get over the fact that the war wasn't what she had thought it to be. But in the end, all she could say was a little “Hm.”

“But yes...” Rose found herself a little rock, and chucked it out into the water; it went in with a soft splash “...Your son is right. The Wastelands are a horrible place, for most. There are a few people who don't mind it that much, but... we are scarce.” she shook her head “It's always the same out there. Rookies come flying in by airship, thinking they're going to save the world and come home to praise and parades, but quickly come to realize that they are probably not coming home at all-—not outside a coffin, at least. Most just get burned when they die, but there are a few who get sent home in coffins as well. You write it on your contract, once you sign up, whether you want to be sent home or burned.”

Agatha seemed rather untouched by the subject, and Rose wondered why. Either that, or she was quite good at hiding it. She slowly looked towards Rose, trying a little smile “And which one did you choose then?”

Rose chuckled. She hadn't chuckled in a long time, but now she did “Me? There wouldn't be anyone to accept my coffin. Of all places I wouldn't want to be buried, it would be Nightweald; my home. I have no good memories of that place. I would much rather be burned where out there, with all the demons and sand and broken souls, than in Nightweald.” She looked away, and chewed at her lips. She knew she couldn't tell Agatha why she had been sent to The Wastelands; surely it would change the way she looked at her forever. First impressions and all. She sighed a little and looked back at her, mirroring her smile “But I don't mean to ruin your morning. Are Duncan and Ramund up yet?”

“Oh they've been up since the first light of dawn.” Agatha did a chuckle of her own, far more lighthearted and merry than Rose's “That Ramund-—he may be old like me, but he has a spirit that cannot be broken. Up by the first light, and even did a few exercises to wake properly up. Good graces what I wouldn't do for that kind of vigor.”

“Yes... that's Ramund alright.” Rose slowly stood up, and shook some water off her feet “I think it's time I go join them, then.” she extended a hand to Agatha, to help her on her feet.

“I am certain they would love your company, my dear.” Agatha said as she accepted Rose's hand, and got back on her feet. She stretched out a few joints in her back, snapping them back in place, before slowly making her way around the house, to get to the front door. Rose trailed a little behind, watching the river a bit more. She wasn't quite done with solitude, but she knew that Duncan would come asking for her, if she didn't make herself present. Stuffing her hands down her pockets, she followed Agatha around the house, and stepped inside.

Rose couldn't deny; it was actually pleasantly warm inside. Not the stuffy warmth of The Fairlands at high noon, nor the scorching heat of The Wastelands at any time of day; it was a soft, pleasant warmth from candles here and there, and a hearth in the back of the room. Rose followed Agatha into what seemed like a dining room of sorts, mixed together with the kitchen. There were a few cooking tools here and there, fit for cooking a meal for an entire family. Rose didn't think of it much before, but almost everything in this house was meant for more than one person. Several bedrooms, several floors, extensive cooking tools, and far more chairs than fit for only one person. And it surely wasn't meant for the dog that lay at the floor, giving Rose a curious look with those old and withered eyes. Agatha may have been a pleasant, kind lady... but she was living in the past.

“Oh, a fine morning to you, Rose.” Ramund's voice tore her out of her thoughts, and made her look him in the eyes for a moment. With Duncan at his side, they were both seated at a round table in the middle of the room, sipping at some kind of soup, it seemed; simple vegetables, by the look and smell of it. Rose cast some glances towards Duncan, and their gazes met for a moment too-—but only a moment. Rose felt a jerk in her chest as she looked him in the eyes, and hurried to look away. She felt strangely ill every time she looked at him, and the mere thought of him gave her a strange burning sensation inside of her. Gritting her teeth and lowering her gaze, she slowly pulled out a chair and sat down by the table, offering Ramund a reluctant smile in response to his greeting.

“Want some soup, dear?” Agatha asked, standing before a bubbling cauldron of soup much larger than even this gathering could ever hope to eat... but then again, with a Mjaln at their side, perhaps it wasn't so unrealistic. However, Rose would have none of it. She shook her head.

“No thanks. I'm not hungry.” She could feel the worried look of Duncan upon her, and she could already hear him say 'but you haven't had anything for days', even if he didn't. And she had to agree with that. Inside of her, there was not only the mix of fear and reluctance given to her by Duncan, but also the distinct sensation of hunger. A quiet rumble from her gut betrayed her, and she had to close her eyes for a few moments, silently cursing it. Thankfully, there were no jesting comments; only a bowl of soup. She looked down at the murky substance before her, laid there by Agatha, and at the spoon at her side. She had to admit: she was terribly hungry. With her body leaning over the soup like a prison inmate guarding their meal, she slowly sipped at the warm food, while listening to Ramund speak.

“Rose.” he said. She looked up at him, saw how some soup had spilled unto his great white beard, but tried not to stare “Duncan and I have been considering our next move, and I believe it only apt that you know as well-—it may include you, after all. I don't take it you know of the Tu'Myaa, do you?”

Rose seemed a little puzzled at the name, but there was something recognizable about it. It was only after a few moments that she recalled: the nurses had been telling the inmates at the asylum about these people, like they had told about so many other. She couldn't quite recall the details, but it was something about an alliance between all three Myaani tribes—-'packs' as they called them—-as a means to prepare for war. She remembered the thought of fox-men dressed up in armor to be ridiculous. It was no less ridiculous now.

“I do.” She answered briefly, and took a sip of her soup.

Ramund seemed genuinely surprised for a moment-—clearly, he had prepared himself for explaining all of it to her “Oh! Well that certainly makes this easier. As you might then also know, their largest settlement—-some might even call it their capital—is located nought but an hour's walk from here. While Westport may or may not be a lost cause, we hope that the chieftain of the Tu'Myaa is a bit more reasonable, and will listen to our plea.”

“'Hope' being the right word here...” Duncan butted in. Rose looked briefly towards him, and saw concerned painted all over his expression. His nose was wrinkled, the scar across it seeming that much more brutal, all of a sudden.

“We might not even be allowed inside. The Tu'Myaa, while stoic and noble, are rather overcautious as well, and will rarely let anything non-Myaani in through the gates.” he continued, sighing “According to mother, it hasn't changed at all, since I was last here. The Tu'Myaa and Casserton have a rather troublesome history, where the mayor before our current one once denied all Myaani voting rights, allowance inside of boutiques, and ordered them all confined inside a ghetto in the southernmost area of the town.” he shook his head “Needless to say, the Myaani weren't all that happy about this, and most of them migrated to the Tu'Myaa settlement, where they spread word about how vile and cruel the Casserton mayor was. This was before I was even born, and most have forgotten why Casserton and the Tu'Myaa are at a feud with one another, but still the grudge lingers. It's some stupid political nonsense that our current mayor has been trying to undo, but the Casserton people will remain racist, and the Tu'Myaa will remain stubborn. It will then be up to us, despite the odds, to have them make friends so both can be evacuated north to Moonby Sanctuary.”

How surprising. So it was not all smooth streets and sunshine in Casserton anyway. It made sense, when Rose thought about it. A little village society, full of tradition and blinding dogma that made no space for these furry outsiders. Who would have known that the sweet, serene town of Casserton harbored such a crude racism? Rose smiled a little. There was always something under the pretty facade.

“And as if that was not enough...” Agatha came to sit down by the table, taking a seat beside Rose “...there has been some ghastly rumors going around that have only served to stoke the fires between the Tu'Myaa and the Casserton. Would you believe it if I told you that a man has been murdered? Here? In the streets of Casserton?”

Rose's eyebrows rose, interesting painted clear across her features as she sat there with a spoonful of soup in her mouth. She looked towards Agatha, and saw that she almost didn't believe it herself. The same could be said about Duncan.

“Murdered?” Duncan seemed quite disbelieving, ridiculing even “Mother, I don't think you should worry about rumors like those. The Casserton people may be xenophobic... but murder? Whoever told you this needs to get some cleaner sources.” he said, snorting through his nose and taking another bite of a chunk of bread.

“True or not, the people think the Tu'Myaa did it.” Agatha's shoulders sagged in a sigh as she leaned in over the table, grabbing some bread for herself “And now the racism is at its peak. All Myaani who dare enter Casserton are given suspicious looks, and sometimes even bullied on the streets... or worse. Duncan, you'll find that a lot has changed in your hometown since you left...”
“I can damn well hear that.” Duncan grumbled, leaning back in his chair and folding his arms. Rose looked between the two, and seemed quite entertained. Ramund, however, seemed more foreboding and disgruntled about where this was going. Rose could tell that he had greater expectations for this town—expectations left unfulfilled, no doubt.

“Rumors or no, the task at hand remains the same.” he said, pushing his empty bowl of soup into the center of the table, indicating he had had enough—-enough soup or rumors, though, Rose couldn't quite tell “I am firmly convinced that when the Casserton people are introduced to thrice count of war veterans with a different view on what is going on out there, and the promise of impending destruction, they will think twice about lingering.”

Duncan rubbed his forehead with his index finger and thumb, sighing “I hope you're right, Ramund. But throughout all this, perhaps it could have been a good idea to bring... well, proof? As it stands, it's only our word against theirs... the other so-called 'veterans', that is.”

“Even a seed of doubt amongst an ocean of lies can make a difference.” Ramund inclined his head, before rising from his chair “Now, I believe our task lies clear before us. I suggest we make off immediately, while there is still time. Spirits will it, these people will see truth in the eyes before the demons come rolling over those hills.”

Duncan pushed his bowl away too, and stood up “Then so be it. I hate to say it, but my hopes aren't high. Casserton is ruled by tradition; everyone has set roots somehow, so tearing them won't be easy.” his eyes fell upon Agatha, and Rose could see a little smile appearing “At least you're more reasonable, mother. While we're gone, perhaps you should start packing the necessities.”

“Necessities... yes yes, alright.” she pushed herself to her feet, supported by her cane, and looked about the place. All the pots and pans and ornaments was something she clearly wanted to keep, but knew she couldn't. With a little frown, she walked off, and began the tiresome process of trying to figure out what was absolutely essential to her. Rose hadn't known this woman for long, but she knew such a thing could take a while. Taking a few more quick spoonfuls of soup to quench the last of her hunger, she rose from her chair and followed Ramund and Duncan out the door.

Outside, in the dawn, Rose felt a silence fall over the three. She liked it. It gave her time to enjoy the world around her, instead of having to deal with facial expressions, choice of words, tone of voice, and looking into eyes of people she would rather be free of. She glanced towards the two now and then, and saw how they were watching the world around them as well. It was a pretty sight, she couldn't deny that. All the green hills with trees atop them, some of them dominated by a single ancient oak, with roots that spread all over the hilltop like a thousand gnarly fingers holding the tree in place. She watched as the red light of dawn came showering down through these trees, shattered into hundreds of little beams that spilled unto the straw roofs of Casserton.

The streets of this serene town were beginning to wake up, now with several farmers moving by, some accompanied by loyal collies at their sides, others by equally loyal cattle or even sheep. It was quite strange how different the place was, as soon as some light fell upon it. At night, it was quiet and calm, the streets empty and the windows dark. But at dawn, the streets were bustling with hay carts making their way over the smooth brick, drivers shouting for people to get out of the way, even if they were bringing an entire herd of cattle with them through the town. And everyone seemed to own a dog, Rose noticed. Which she liked. There was something more honest and pleasant about animals, than people. People were double-sided, always at a risk for stabbing you in the back. But animals were honest. They were open. They were trustworthy. They were so wonderfully... simple.

She crouched down before some of the collies and went to pet them, and most of them just came right up to her, wanting to be scratched. And, of course, she did. She gave them a good scratch behind the ears, and saw their tongues loll out of their mouths in pleasure. That was another thing—animals never asked questions. No man would approach her without asking why she wanted them closer, and would definitely never do so if they knew how long time she had spent in an asylum for the insane. But this dog? This dog just came right up to her, knowing exactly what she wanted to do: scratch it. And it was right. Why couldn't people be a little more like this? Not that she ever wanted to scratch a man behind the ears, of course. With a little pat on its head, she shooed the dog onwards to its master somewhere in the building crowd, and quickly hurried back to Ramund and Duncan.

Duncan and Ramund were standing outside a tavern, she saw from a distance. The stench of booze mixed with the perpetual smell of hay confused her, but she knew that as soon as anyone walked through that door, the sweet smell of hay would be outdone threefold. She slowly approached the two, hands in her pockets, and gave them both a questioning look.

Ramund was the first to speak, as always, and gave her a little smile as he did “Rose, I'm glad you followed. Duncan and I have a vague idea of how we can approach this matter, but your voice would be appreciated... if you would give it to us, of course.”

“What he means is we'd like your opinion on the plan.” Duncan continued, shrugging his left shoulder. Rose noticed how there were a few men who came and left the tavern, those entering usually sober, and those who left: not so much. Duncan leaned up against the wooden wall of the little place, which she deduced to be named 'The Spilled Mug', and adorned with a carving of a mug that had been tipped over, with booze flowing over a table. Rose had long since given up on trying to make sense of these tavern names. This one even seemed to give the place a bad image. Were the customers to expect that their booze was going to be spilled? She shook her head and tried not to think further of it.

“Alright, if you wish.” Rose said, and looked between Ramund and Duncan “Though wouldn't it have been best if you mentioned this while we were safe and sound by the morning table, instead of here, with so many prying ears and eyes?”

Ramund chuckled, his voice like distant thunder “Rose my dear, we are planning the salvation for this town—not plotting an assassination. But time is not on our side, and we may be forced to split, if we wish for this to be done right.” his hazel eyes fell to Duncan “Duncan has volunteered to speak with the mayor, as he is already familiar with the man. And I, I can speak with the Tu'Myaa. The Myaani are tradition-bound folk, and may be more inclined to listen to an old man such as myself.”

Rose seemed a little puzzled, giving each of them a curious look “And where does that leave me?”

Duncan coughed, and thumbed over his shoulder towards the door behind him “We'll need someone to figure out if these murder rumors are true... and as we all know, if rumors were flies, a tavern would be a freshly laid cattle turd. If you're lucky, maybe the barkeep has something to say.”

Rose cringed, and raised her hands defensively “You want me to mingle with drunks and belligerents? Perhaps something in between? You're an idiot. I'm not going in there.” though the thought of investigating a murder did intrigue her, she had to admit. She licked her lips and looked in through the open door of the tavern, wrinkling her nose at the smell.

“...but alright.” she gave in, knowing that there might be little other choice at that point. She looked back at Duncan and Ramund, her lips pursed together and her arms folded across her chest “I'll do it, then. I won't like it, but I'll do it. Rumors and drunk people are my bane, but... for the salvation of the world and the greater good, oh I shall be a martyr, I shall.” her voice was dripping with sarcasm, but deep inside, the prospect of getting a better look at a murder like this one put a silver lining to it all.

“We shall see you soon, in that case.” Ramund said, right as Rose passed “Best of luck.”
Wordless, Rose pushed the door open, and gave a gesture of farewell over her shoulder. She paused in the doorway for a little while, watching Ramund and Duncan drift away, into the river of people, cows, and carts that rolled through the streets. Her eyes lingered on Duncan right up until he was gone completely. With a little sigh, she turned about, and made her way inside.

And as she had expected, the pleasant whiff of hay was drowned away almost immediately, as she stepped through the door. The reek of booze was thick as honey in the air, but nowhere near as sweet. She had to admit, though; it wasn't nearly as bad as anything Westport had to give. Furthermore, it was actually quite neatly arranged and cleaned, in this place. The main hall of the tavern, there were men came in to drink themselves to oblivion, was shaped as a great circle, rather than the classic rectangular form-—an odd change she had not expected, as the place had seemed perfectly square from outside. A few steps brought her down unto the wooden floor, lowered a little from the level of the smooth roads and grass outside, and with the bar itself raised above the bustling patrons. It was full—-of that, there was no doubt, even at this time of day. There was a smell of meat in the air as well, and judging by that and the sight of men and women sitting at tables enjoying platefuls of solid, healthy food, she figured that they served more than just booze in here. Another pleasant surprise. Maybe this wasn't going to be so bad after all. She even saw a few children running about here and there.

She walked across the wide circular floor, through the rows of tables, past the patrons that laughed and ate and clamored their mugs together in celebration of something; probably the dawning of another day. As if that was something to celebrate. But maybe... with the coming army of hell, maybe it was. They had best enjoy it while they could, and she was glad to see they did.
Most of them were humans. Far most of them, though she spotted an elf here and there—-the dark as well as the light kind—and even a single Mjaln, towering over the rest like a single adult amongst a crowd of children. She eyed them all, and caught some of their glances back at her... and when they did, they always smiled. Pleasant, welcoming smiles-—not the perverted ones she was used to, from the guards of Section 9. It was almost suspiciously pleasant in here. Even with the smell of booze. It was just the right temperature, the laughter of children filled the air, the patrons were not too drunk... had she not been here on business matters, she may have stayed a while and filled that little gap in her stomach called hunger. Agatha's soup was nice, but it hadn't quite sated her. But it didn't matter. She had gone without food for days before.

She moved to approach the bar, her arms slumping unto the wood, her eyes glancing at those around her; there was a man and a woman chattering with one another, exchanging kisses now and then, and laughing at one another's jests. One the other side of her, there was a man. He seemed like the only one here who wasn't smiling. His lips were hard and stern, and seemed like they were made of stone; the same went for his face. His face was grizzled and bearded, his hair was short and greying, and it was clear that age was getting on him; not anything like Ramund, though, and she figured he must have been somewhere around his late forties, maybe just over his fiftieth birthday. His hazel eyes were drowned into the lingering droplets of booze in the bottom of a wooden mug that he was quietly fingering, his mind obviously not here, not even close. She stared at the man for little while, wondering what someone like him, the only one not laughing, smiling, or clashing mugs was doing here. Her lips pursed, and she turned her attention back to the barkeep who had just found time to speak with her.

“G'morning, miss.” the barkeep was a little woman with auburn hair, dressed in an apron. Her eyes were fixed unto Rose's, but her hands were working on cleaning out a mug with a little piece of wet cloth. Rose looked up into her eyes, and forced out a little smile.

“Good morning.” she responded, trying to put on her kindest voice, even though she was at a sore lack of one “Are you the barkeep?”

“Sure am.” the little woman said. She had a thick Fairlandish accent, speaking all the way from the bottom of her throat “Been so for six years now. You must be new in town. Got a name, honey?”

Rose seemed a little puzzled at being called 'honey', and thoughts of the elf in the top hat came swimming back. It was not said with the same serpentine demeanor, though, and more as if it was something she called anyone and anything-—probably the dogs too. Rose cleared her throat, and spat our a fake name “Beatrice.” she said, just saying whatever first came to mind “I'm not here for a drink, though, so I'll make it quick. I'm with The Crusade, and just recently came home from the front lines.” she lied again, though it was only half a lie—she was nowhere near home “I've been hearing something about a murder in the streets. Can you confirm this?”

The barkeep was silent for a few moments, turning her gaze away, into the bottom of the mug she was cleaning. With a little frown, she turned her eyes back up to Rose “Heard about that, did ya? Sad thing to return to. No one really has any proof of who did it, but we're all pretty damn sure who the culprits are.” her sweet voice carried a slight hint of spite, but no matter how slight, Rose could smell it-—taste it, even “Bloody fox-folk have been getting into our streets more and more where they don't belong. You can tell it was them just by the look on their smug faces, y'know?” her kind smile was long gone by now, replaced by a look of disdain “I never go outside at night without a shank these days. Those furries are some sneaky sons of bitches, and will pounce on you when you ain't looking. Generally, I don't advise going alone at any point.” so the rumors were true, Rose deduced. How interesting. She opened her mouth to speak, but was interrupted by the barkeep, who shook her head and put on another plastic smile “But don't let that discourage you, honey. You said you just came home from the front lines, did ya? We get a few of your folk, and they're always a blast to listen to. You're the kinda folk who keep us safe and sound, so please, I'll get you a mug—-on the house, of course.”

Rose tried to smile “I don't drink, but thanks.” she cleared her throat “It's true, yeah, I'm from the front lines... it's good to be home.” she cast a few glances to her right, and noticed that their conversation had caught the attention of the grizzled, greying man at her side. He was looking between both of them with shimmering eyes that didn't lie about how many drinks he had had. She tried to ignore him, and looked back at the barkeep “What did the other veterans say? Good things, I suppose?”

The barkeep chuckled, her laughter sweet like honey “Why of course! They all bring such riveting stories of their time on the field, saving lives and slaying demons, almost like a fairy tale come true. Man, if my paps didn't force me to stand around here all day serving up drinks, I'd be off slaying demons in a moment's notice! They tell me that women can't go as easily, but hell, look at you!” she smiled brightly, and gave Rose a friendly, gently punch over the shoulder; she really did not like that, but tried not to show “You must have some stories to tell as well, don't ya?”

Rose felt herself shrink a little inside as she saw how she was gathering a lot of unnecessary attention; there were eyes upon her everywhere, clearly wanting more of these stories they had been fed. She grit her teeth and slowly shook her head “I'm really sorry, but I'm dreadfully tired after my trip here. I'm all the way from Camp Vanguard—-that's the outermost camp, for your information—-and I nearly haven't shut an eye on the trip here.”

“You look pretty haggard too, madam.” the grizzled man suddenly spoke up, and Rose almost jumped at his voice; it was a hoarse and growling thing, almost like listening to the snarl of a wolf—-but he was smiling. Rose looked towards the man and saw a strange look in his eye; was it just the intoxication, or was it something more? He quickly turned to the barkeep and slid over a few coins “Dorothy, get this sweet lady and me a couple of those... what do you call them-—troll ales? Those at the very bottom of your layer, that is.”

“But... I don't dri—“

“Nonsense!” the man interrupted Rose and hurried the barkeep onwards; she quickly grabbed the coins and rolled her eyes, seemingly bothered by having to go look for such an obscure beverage “When you're under this roof, everyone drinks!” his eyes quickly snapped towards Rose, and while she wanted to snarl at him and tell him to piss off, she noticed something strange in his gaze. There was a feral sincerity in them allowing no debate, stalwart like steel and sharp as it too “She's going to be gone for a while. Follow me.” Rose didn't even have time to react before she felt his iron grip around her arm, and she was pulled away from the desk.

“Hey!” she hissed and pulled her arm away, giving him a spiteful, suspicious look “Back off, pig! Look at yourself; you're drunk!”

“And I'll be sober in the morning, darling, but if you keep up that attitude you won't live to see what I'm like when I'm sober.” the man snarled and gripped her arm again. He leaned in close, his voice lowered to a hiss through his teeth “Now I suggest you shut up and follow. Do you see all these eyes looking at you? Not all of them are merry tavern patrons looking for a drink. Some of them are looking for people like you... and people like me. I'll give you all the details out back. Trust me.”

Rose's eyes darted around the place, and only then did she notice there were far more eyes on her than she had thought at first. What did he mean about 'looking for people like her'? As she let herself drag away, she caught glimpses of eyes that did not smile-—eyes of predators, lurking amongst the crowd. Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.

She was dragged through a few doors going through the kitchen, through the ale layers, and eventually one that led out to a little pig pen. It was a little area tucked in between houses, muddy and reeking of pig shit, and dominated by a single fat pig, half asleep in his eating trough. The sound of laughter and clamoring mugs was a distant background noise by now, and only the sound of boots through mud and the dawn wind could be heard. She cringed at the smell, and rubbed her arm when the man finally let go of her. She stood there for a while, watching him trudge around in the mud and shit, his hand running nervously through his greying hair over and over again. He stopped up abruptly, and turned to her.

“Do you know what you were doing in there, huh? Tell me honestly; do you actually realize what you were doing?” a sneer contorted his lips, wrinkling his face and encasing his piercing hazel eyes. Rose looked into his feral stare for a little while, and saw the general; the general whom she had accompanied until Aegon got the better of him.

“I was asking around, obviously.” she spoke back, a sneer of her own growing on her face “Or maybe you were too drunk to realize that.”

The man snorted “There you go again with that loose tongue of yours. See, that's what's going to get you killed. Not the war, not the demons—your tongue.” he gestured his hand slightly “Indirectly speaking, of course. The hunters are going to kill you, is what I mean to say.”

Rose sneer was replaced by a look of curiosity “The hunters? I'm not prey, you know.”

This time, he laughed “Oh, oh is that what you think? Honey, I admire your gullibility, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to burst that pleasant little bubble of yours—you are very much prey, and you bloody well know it.” he went to lean up against the muddy fence of the pig pen, calloused fingers tapping on his elbows; he was wearing a roughspun tunic of white linen, and trousers to match “Frankly, I'm surprised you're not landfill yet. You are a veteran, right? A real one, that is.”

Rose's heart leaped; was that what this man was? Another veteran? She slowly nodded, saying nothing.

“Then you're already dead.” he picked some meat from his teeth and flicked it to the pig “At least in the mind of Lucius Deum. I knew you were a real one, as you were the only one of them to actually mention the name of a camp—Vanguard, in this case. See, you know what it's like out there, on the field. What it's really like. You've seen all the blood and murder, brought home memories of the filth and endless wastes with no victory, no songs of glory, no anything... that's not what Deum wants his people to think. He wants the whole world to think that The Crusade is all about brotherhood and victory, but you know as well as I how big a pile of bullshit that all is. And that, honey, is the reason he's tracking down folk like us to put a bullet in our skulls in silence in our mouths.”

Rose cringed, and shook her head “You're paranoid.”

“Am I?” the man pushed himself off the fence and walked up to her, intimidatingly close-—close enough to smell the booze in his breath “Look me in the eye and tell me I'm not right. You're smarter than that; I can tell. Maybe you've already seen it? I sure have. I've seen what they do to people like me. I was deployed at Camp Vanguard too once, you know. A bloody lieutenant I was, respected and all—but when the airship came and got me together with seven others, ranks and uniforms meant nothing. As soon as those bastards drop us off in the port of Aegon, we all get these questions, see. Some of those that came with me were utterly ruined by the war; destroyed in the head by all the blood and butchery, but those of us that weren't-—oh, we're the real victims here. We can talk, after all! We can be sensible! We can put up arguments and spread the word of how nasty it is out there! Deum doesn't want that, so if we answer correctly on too many questions: BANG! Right in the fucking head!” his face was a mess, a gun-shaped pair of fingers at his temple and a look of intoxicated madness in his eyes.

“Where were our titles and medals when they put lead in our skulls, huh? I smelled their bullshit from a mile away, and did my bloody best to answer wrong on all their questions; hell, I acted for my life, and made damn sure they would label me as just another looney ruined by the war, so they wouldn't turn me into pig-food. I got lucky. But if you can't watch your mouth, I'm not sure I can say the same for you.”

“And you expect me to trust you, just like that?” Rose stepped backwards, her hands balled together in fists, a defensive and suspicious look on her face “Look at yourself; you're drunk, haggard, and I don't even know your name. For all I know, you could be a crazy old fool with too much booze in your belly and too much dementia in your head.”

“You're partially right, honey.” he spat, a thick splotch in the mud “I'm an old fool, I have too much booze in my belly, you don't know my name, but I can tell you right here and now: I'm one of the few in this entire city-—no, this entire world who's right in the head. Ask Lucius Deum. He'll tell you that-—where after he'll put us down like the dogs we are.” Rose stood stifled for a moment, as he heard him use that analogy. It was the same she had told Duncan in that tavern, on the way to Westport. Dogs of war. That's all they were.

The man sighed, and shook his head “But I can't tell you to trust me... Hell, I wouldn't trust me. If you'll let me, I can dismiss one of your worries, though.” he slowly approached again, this time calmer. He extended his hand, and looked her in the eyes “The name's Edan. Edan Wolfe. I would say that it's a pleasure making your acquaintance, but frankly, seeing you here has scared me shitless.”

Rose looked at the man, Edan, with suspicion, but saw only a man fighting for his life in that hazel stare of his. A survivor, living life with a war that refused to leave him alone. She chewed her lip for a few moments, and sighed, her shoulders sagging. Only then did she accept his hand, and gave it a firm squeeze; his palm was calloused and hard, almost like leather “Rose. No surname.”

Edan let his hand slip from hers, and he snorted through his nose “So not Beatrice anyway, huh? Smart girl. I told most people here my name is 'John' anyway, so good thinking. Switch the two around a few times, and you'll find the hunters here will be fucking confused when some people refer to you as Beatrice, others as Rose.” he ran his arm across his nose, wiping it “Anyway, Rose, you need to watch yourself out there. Did you come alone?”

She shook her head “No. I'm with two others: Duncan and Ramund.”

“'Ramund'?” Edan arched a bushy eyebrow “A mjaln? Shit. He'll be too easily recognizable. What the hell is a Mjaln doing down south anyway? I thought they had ice trolls to conquer, and whatnot.”
She shrugged “I couldn't tell you. He's an over-zealous and gullible idiot, too trusting and kind for his own good. When we were in Westport, he made a friend—-some random woman on the streets, from what I could tell. He shouldn't have. The woman, along with eight other innocents, were butchered by a wild demon in the streets. It was a mess.” the thought of all the blood made her heart beat a bit faster, but she couldn't let it show. She couldn't let Edan know about how the demon got there in the first place... and the look of inquisition in his hazel gaze immediately made her regret ever bringing the subject up.

“Hold up.” he said, disbelief in his voice “You're telling me there's a demon in Westport?”

She had to spin up a lie, and quick “Yes.” her gaze averted “It was a scout for a greater army... look, Edan, we didn't come here for no reason. You've seen the smoke from Aegon, or at least heard the rumors, I'm sure. Would you believe me if I told you that the demons have somehow amassed an unconquerable horde, and are headed right this way?”

For a moment, Edan looked at her to see if she was joking. A little smile perked on his lips, and he was getting ready to laugh. But the look on Rose's face told of no jokes. No laughter. His smile died quickly afterward, and he gritted his teeth “Shit. You're serious, aren't you?”

She nodded somberly.

He turned around on his heel, and ran both hands through his greying hair, taking a moment to comprehend what she just said. However, in the end, all he did was chuckle slightly “Heh. And here I thought our worst enemy was The Crusade itself. Good gods. Squeezed between heaven and hell, it seems. How poetically ironic.” he turned his gaze back at Rose “Unconquerable, you say?”

Rose folded her slender fingers behind her back, and frowned “They said Aegon's walls could keep hell itself at bay. This army proved them wrong.”

Edan sat up unto the fence of the pen, casting glances down at the fat pig at his side, his stern lips squeezed together, paling “Then there must be some kind of intelligent force behind it. Demons don't work like that. They're a bunch of barbaric sons of bitches, and if they could bring down Aegon itself, then barbarism and bloodlust wouldn't be enough. They'd need tactics. Extensive, thorough-thought tactics, in fact. Shit.” he wrinkled his nose as he cursed, then looked back at Rose “If Aegon couldn't hold them back, then The Fairlands will be effortlessly trampled—you do realize this, right?”

“Of course.” Rose leaned up against the wall near the door that lead back into the tavern “That's why we're here to evacuate this miserable little speck of a village, and stuff them into safety behind the walls of Moonby Sanctuary.” she didn't really know why she used the word 'we', as she couldn't care less for the lives of these farmers and cattle—-she just wanted to go home.

Edan chuckled “Well that's a bold move. Need help with that?”

Rose snorted, unsure if he was serious. But this time, it was her turn to realize that he wasn't joking. He looked him up and down, as if measuring and weighing him-—judging him “You really want to help? Why?”

He shrugged, and held out his arms as if to present the world to her “Look around you, honey. If I stay here, I'll be demon-food if the hunters don't get me first. I hate it here anyway... and besides: I'm drunk. This is obviously the best time to make life-changing decisions.” this time, he smiled, and uttered a little chuckle. And Rose, she could only sigh.

“I'm not going to stop you, then. But I'm not in charge of this. Duncan is.”

“And where can I find this 'Duncan', then?” Edan scooted off the fence, and moved closer.
“He's trying to convince the mayor to join us.” she reached out to open up the door to the tavern-—the sound of laughter and clamoring mugs could be heard from inside “If you hurry, maybe you can reach him.”

“I might just do that.” he spoke under his breath, and moved into the doorway. There, he stood for a few seconds, eyes in the dirt. He seemed caught in thought for a little while, before he turned to Rose. His smile was gone, and his face was that of a man who had seen too much in a world too bloody “Watch yourself out there, Rose. It ain't all flowers and sunshine. Keep your head low, and don't attract attention to yourself. I'd hate to see lead between a pair of pretty eyes like yours.” wordless, he closed the door behind him, leaving Rose alone in the stink and mud.

She lingered out here for a while, Edan's voice echoing in her mind. For some reason, he reminded her of Duncan. Was it the Fairlandish accent? Was it the grizzled look of man who had seen what was behind the white picket fences? Or was it because Edan seemed exactly like what Duncan could become, if he didn't let go of the war? She closed her eyes for a moment, and sighed. With fingers entwined and a mind hazed, she slid down the wall and sat into the mud. She didn't mind the filth. She never had.
Vanguard, Chapter 24: Wolfe
Introducing a new character: Edan Wolfe! While Duncan is descending into an even more tattered and war-torn man, I wanted to make an example of what he could become--Edan filling this role. I think he is a character with a lot of potential, and in the next coming chapters, we'll be taking a closer look at what kind of man he is. And, as always, thanks for reading! :)
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In The Wastelands, the unwary traveler would only find two things: death's hand, and a mouthful of sand. So the saying went, and there was yet anyone to prove it wrong. In The Wastelands, where the sun never seemed to set, where water was a myth and a fairy tale, and where demons roamed about like wolves, one could ask themselves what a traveler was doing there in the first place-—unwary or not. Much less when the lands were swept clean in a sandstorm like this one.

The wind ripped and screamed like a mad banshee, sparing no thought to what havoc it may wreak in its path. The sands were like a million needles, prickling and digging into the skin of one particularly bold soldier, who made his way through the chaos.

It was high noon, but the sun was nowhere to be seen—not through this ocean of sand that howled its way over the dunes. The soldier that pushed his way through the sandstorm had no way of knowing where he was, nor how far he was from his destination—only that he was slowly making his way forward, putting one armored foot in front of the other, and trying to breathe as little sand as possible. The sand underneath him gave way for his heavy steps, but every time he did, it seemed as if the sandstorm quickly hurried to cover it up again, and take his foot with it. He knew he had to keep moving or the sands underneath him would eat him up, as if the desert itself was a huge, all-consuming mouth... to hell, some theorized. Some said the demons came up through the sand at night, and being consumed would mean dumping into their hellish realm. Others said that the demons were already walking around, over the sand, but were in some kind of parrallel dimension, and somehow managed to break through from time to time. Himself, though? He believed that demons were already here, walking about... wearing armor and looking an awful lot like humans.

He was wearing a thick scarf, wrapped around his entire face to avoid getting sand in his eyes and mouth. It flapped and whipped like a flag, and over the sound of screaming winds, he could hear the rattle of sand colliding with his armor. It had been newly polished, but after this, no amount of polish would be able to straighten out the thousands upon thousands of tiny cuts, that was damn well certain. Still, he pushed on. A tarnished armor was, after all, much better than death's hand and a mouthful of sand, as they said.

It seemed almost endless, though. The sands just wouldn't stop coming, and he considered for a moment sitting down to rest, trying to shield himself under his armor. Besides, he had no idea which way he was going, and for all he knew, all this walking could have brought him even further away from the camp. However... amidst all the bad luck, a shred of hope seemed to twinkle. Looking upwards, he could see the sun breaking through the sands. That meant the sandstorm was about to dwindle. He let out a relieved sigh and pressed on, knowing that it couldn't be long by now.

And he was right. Within a few moments' time, the sandstorm passed, and while a little wind still swept behind it, no more sand came flying to cut at his armor and the cloth around his face. He looked upwards at the sun, and for once, felt thankful to see it. Taking in a long breath of clear air, he took off the white linen scarf, and felt the sun clear on his face.

Duncan slumped to his knees, thankful to be finally out of that atrocity. He knew several good people who had perished in sandstorms like these, and while he hated this place with all his heart, dying in a sandstorm wasn't the way he wanted to go. He sat there for a few moments, feeling his strength returning to his limbs—first the legs, those things that had carried him through the sandstorm, feeling almost completely numb by now. All he could feel in them was a burning sensation, and the movement of his own blood. He looked up at the sun and pulled his hairband out, letting his black locks fall down the sides of his face, freely swaying in the dwindling winds. However, he wasn't given all that long to catch his breath, before he realized that someone might not have been as lucky as him, in this sandstorm.

It was just a little brown dent in the distance, but it was all he needed. The land here was endlessly flat, harboring only mile after mile of desolate landscape, earth so crisp that it was riddled with cracks and dust that seemed to go on forever. The only company that a soldier like himself would meet out here was the occasional passing tumbleweed... so what he looked upon now was definitely not an every day sight.

He quickly stood up, ignoring the pain in his legs, knowing that he didn't have time to dally. What lied in the distance looked distinctly like brown cloth with someone underneath it. He grabbed a hold of the metal flask at his belt, and gave it a shake. Still a few drops. It would have to do.
“I'm coming! Hang in there!” he called out, his voice lost in the wasteland void, though he hoped for all in the world that whoever laid there, could hear him. He set into a steady jog, breathing heavily, his legs on fire. And when he finally came close enough and looked down upon the bundle of brown cloth, he saw how it was breathing heavily too.

“Hey... hey you. Are you alright?” he asked. Whoever was beneath the bundle of cloth was hidden completely; it was a very small person, though, and probably a child. Duncan knew these native teachings somewhat, and knew that all children were taught to just sit down and turtle up if they were alone in a sandstorm. And that was exactly what this kid was doing.

“The sandstorm has passed now.” He said, trying to put more emphasis on his tone than his words. He knew the natives couldn't speak the common tongue anyway, just like most soldiers couldn't speak theirs. There was the occasional diplomat that went to their tribes to trade water for food or weaponry, but they were rare, and he knew for a certain he wasn't any. So, with a little sigh, he drew out his sword and peeled off the robes of the child. When the face peeked out to look at him, he quickly regretted ever doing that.

It was a girl. No ordinary girl, though-—it was that girl. He had dreaded seeing those gentle green eyes again, and the helpless stare that he felt digging right into his heart, and beyond. He stood up abruptly, staring down at her as she sat there, arms wrapped around her knees, wearing the same poncho... the one he had seen her die in.

“You need to kill her, Duncan.” Lex's voice came out of thin air, it seemed, but as he snapped his gaze to his left, there he stood. He was wearing the white lab coat that he never seemed to take off, but he wasn't wearing his bird's mask this time. His face, pale and elven smooth in comparison to the girl's, was distorted in spite, his lips peeled back in an angry frown, and his eyes allowing no debate. But Duncan's eyes didn't linger on his face, that which he held in his hand drawing far more of his attention. Just looking at it made him feel sick to his stomach. That gun... that damned, sinful gun.

Duncan looked between Lex and the girl, and he wanted to run away... but he knew what Lex said was true. The girl had to die. She was infested-—infested with demons. It was for her own good. Before he even realized it, there he stood, gun in hand, pointing it at the girl. Time didn't seem to matter, yet every second felt like an eternity as he stood there, staring into the girl's green eyes. It was the exact same look as before, that he saw in them. That look of pleading helplessness... the confusion. She didn't even know what was going on. She didn't even know she was going to die.

“I'm so sorry...” Duncan whimpered. He didn't want to do this, but he knew he had no choice. In the end, it all played out as it had done before: he pulled the trigger.

BANG!

His eyes flung open, and he rushed up in his bed. His mind was a haze, caught somewhere between the dream and reality, still not sure how to tell one from the other. He looked down at his hands, at the moonlit blanket over his legs, and saw how his arms glistened with sweat in the same silver glow. His entire body felt sticky, and with good reason. He breathed rapidly, trying to get as much of the cold and nightly air inside of him, to cool down the burning sensation in his stomach. After a few quick breaths, he calmed down. His body realized that he was safe and sound, and began to breathe normally. He closed his eyes for a moment, and let out a long sigh. Another nightmare.

He slung his legs out the side of his bed, and felt the dusty floor under his bare feet. He looked forward and saw the moonlight that fell in through the open window, in through the swaying curtains. A cold wind invaded his room, and tingled on his bare skin. He welcomed it.

Looking around himself, he tried to take in as much as he could, just to make completely sure that he wasn't still in some dark crevasse of his own mind. He stood up, only clad in his undergarments, and picked up a small toy from one of the drawers of his room. He smiled a little. It was an ancient little thing, from years long since passed. A little stuffed cat, only the size of his hand, and with paws that could be posed in any way the user wanted it to. One hind leg was gone, though, as was the right eye of the poor thing. He felt the toy properly through, all the dust it had gathered, the softness of its woolen texture... yes, he was indeed in reality. Putting the thing back, he sat down on his bed again, and put on his clothes.

However, he was only halfway clothed, before the image of that little girl appeared in his head again. He felt a cold chill in his blood, and stopped what he was doing. He closed his eyes, and tried so hard to forget. To forget the look she had given him-—those green eyes, so full of fear and bewilderment. If only... if only he could have told him what was going to happen to her. But she just sat there, confused and frightened, before he put a bullet between her pretty eyes.

He sighed, and shook his head. He knew he was going to take that memory to his grave, whether he wanted it or not. The Wastelands were long gone... but still, the war always came back to haunt him. He gazed out the window, into the silver-tinted horizon, where the hills danced and the grass bowed to the wind. And while he knew that the war would always be an undying echo in his mind, he feared it was not going to settle with just that. Not with a demon army on one side, and a government that wanted to silence him on the other. He remembered asking himself if he could ever live a normal life... at this rate, he knew the world wouldn't let him.

He rose from his bed, and stepped up to the window. He had put his shirt on now, and his denim trousers too. He felt the cold breezes brush against his cheeks, and gently pull at his hair. He looked over the town of Casserton, and heard the river in the background. The panorama of straw-roofed houses and green hills was a spectacular sight from his room, which was on the third and highest floor of his mother's home. He could see everywhere from the tallest estate on the very top of the great slope, to the river-houses at the very end. He could feel the nostalgia bubble up inside of him... but there was one place in particular he knew he had to visit.

He cast a glance down the window sill; true enough, there was the ladder that he had once made with his father, to make quick descent directly from his room. Slinging his legs over the edge, he prayed that the ladder would hold, as he made his way down, quiet as to not wake up the others.

When he dumped down below, he felt the grass tickle at his ankles, and the soft earth give way underneath his weight. He looked in through the windows and saw his mother, sitting in her rocking chair, bathed in the humble glow of a candle that was about to die out. He smiled a little. She was sleeping soundly with a book on her stomach. It was a relief to see her peaceful like this, despite what he had told her yesterday... his smile disappeared. It was a shame he had to tell her. She had probably expected great stories of victory and brotherhood, but all she got was the disillusion of what really was going on, and the news that it might be coming right to her doorstep. That wasn't what a mother wanted to hear, after seeing her son for the first time in years. But it was the sad truth, no matter how you mask it. With a little sigh, he turned around on his heel, and set off into the town of Casserton.

All the lights were out now, in this town. Night was at its highest, and everyone had gone to sleep... well, nearly everyone. Duncan jogged through the streets, the smooth and wide streets, looking in through windows and trying to recognize it all from those years ago. He had to admit, it had changed a little. The little tobacco boutique on the corner had given way to a shoemaker, and the toy store that he remembered spending many hours at was disturbingly abandoned, full of cobwebs and dust. All the toys were still there, as if the owner had just thrown up his arms one day and shouted “No more!”, and left for another life. That, however, was highly unlikely.

Soon after, he came to a stop. He had jogged through the town, through all the districts, seeing the slow change from large, boastful slope-houses, to smaller, humbler river-houses. However, when even they had begun to disappear, there was only one thing left to see. And he was standing before it right now.

'Casserton Cemetery', the sign above wrote, all covered in mold and moss. It wasn't tended all that much to, it seemed, and he wondered why. If there was anything here that needed to be tended and kept clean, surely it was the place where you buried and kept your dead. He shook his head slightly, and ignored it, as he stepped inside.

It was dark here, now that the lantern posts of the streets were long gone. There were two of them at the entrance of the cemetery, but darkness enveloped the one who ventured inside. Even so, in the moonlight, he could see it all quite clearly—-or was it just old memory guiding his way? All the tombstones, some of them humble and small, others great and boastful with angel sculptures weeping over them. He figured these had to be some of the wealthier folk, since they had the money to boast the size of their pouches, even in death. There was a slight mist over the cemetery, as was so common for places like these, and he felt it tickle around his ankles. There was a great mausoleum as well, in the middle of it all, which was strictly reserved to all mayors. He remembered it being built, though, and the mayor who decided it had to be made was still alive. So, it was completely empty, so far. But pretty nonetheless.

However, as he made his way deeper into the cemetery, through tiny paths that wound between all the graves, there was one particular tombstone that caught his attention. He smiled as he saw it. This was definitely the one. It was nowhere near as boastful as some of the greater ones, but even so, he could almost recognize it by its smell, at this point. He crouched down before it, and looked at the little bush that grew at its side. He remembered having planted it there himself, and it had grown quite a lot since he had last seen it. Someone must have tended to it. However, whoever did, seemed like they hadn't tended to the tombstone itself... for it was covered in a thick layer of dust, like that you would find upon old books in forgotten libraries. Duncan reached forward, and wiped away the dust, so the name became clear in the moonlight.

'Kendrew Montgomery Ross', it wrote. He smiled. It was a long time since he had heard his father's name, or even read it. Yet here it was. He sat down by the grave, legs folded under himself. He took a long breath of the cold cemetery air, and closed his eyes. He whispered a quiet prayer, one to Morrin, the god of death and slumber, before he folded his hands on his lap and began to speak.

“Hello... father.” he began, his voice quiet and solemn, as if he didn't want to disturb the other dead around him “It has been too long since we spoke. I hope you'll forgive me for that, but as I am sure you know, I've had no option to visit your grave for the last few years. But, here I am. I just wanted you to know that mother and I are doing alright. We're pushing through... we miss you, though.” he chuckled quietly “I remember all too clearly the fun we used to have when you were still alive, and I was but a little boy. The ladder we made together, the book you gave me... I've treasured its lessons, and taken them deeply to heart, you know. 'Know thine enemy', right? Thing is... I'm having a little trouble figuring out who that is. It's all just a little... hazy, these days.”

He shook his head “But I digress. I hope you're doing well up there, in Morrin's arms. If I'm lucky, maybe I'll get to meet you there, once my time comes. Wouldn't that be great? Anyway... rest well, father. I'm going on quite the trip... and I'm not sure if I'm going to return. If I don't, know that I won't ever forget you. Mother sure hasn't, and I won't either. Even if you can't be by my side, you'll always be with me, one way or another. Of all the shrines I've had, and all the prayers I've spoken on the battlefield... you were always the one I really worshiped.” he finished with a little gesture of his hand in reverence of Morrin, and opened his eyes. He didn't sit up quite yet, though. He wanted to enjoy the silence for a little while longer... but a certain someone saw it fit not to let him have that.

“That was... pretty.” Duncan snapped his head towards the sound of the voice and saw, bathed in the moonlight, Rose. He had instinctively reached for his blade-—even though it was still in his room—-but he calmed down when he saw her, sitting there, on one of the larger tombstones. Her legs dangled over the edge, and the weeping angel of the tombstone she was sitting on seemed as if it was weeping for her, for some reason.

“You must really have loved your father.” she said, an odd and alien sympathy in her voice. Though faint in the darkness, Duncan could make out a little caring smile on her face. Was it real? He couldn't quite tell. He slowly rose from the mossy ground, and brushed off his clothing.

“I did... I did.” Duncan confirmed, casting a slow glance down at his father's grave “It was many years ago, though, since I had last enjoyed his company. I was just a boy, really, blissfully ignorant of the rigors of adulthood... running in tulip fields and chasing butterflies all day.” he said with a little smile of his own. However, when he looked back at Rose, he saw that she obviously didn't have much to contribute on that subject... and with good reason.

“I can imagine.” she stated quietly, her gaze falling to the ground, seeming like she was trying to understand what childhood was like. Duncan opened his mouth, wanting to apologize for bringing up such a sensitive subject, but he was interrupted “How did he go, then?”

A little befuddled by the sudden question, Duncan didn't answer right away. His mouth closed, his eyebrow quirked, and he looked back down at the grave. He sighed, scratching the back of his head “I remember it like it was yesterday... even though it happened way before I could call myself a man; way before I enlisted in The Crusade. It was in the middle of the night, that my mother woke me up to tell me that my father had fallen ill, and was sent to the medical center...” he shook his head “I've never seen a man die so fast from illness. He seemed alright the day before, but then, in the morning... no more Kendrew. I wasn't even allowed to see him—-my mother was probably afraid that it would scar me. And, chances are that she was right. Still... it isn't easy going to bed one day with a father, then waking up without one.” he took in a quick breath, and looked over at Rose “But I don't mean to talk your ear off. Mind if I ask what you're doing out here, in the middle of the night, in a cemetery?”

Rose let out a quiet snort, scooting herself off the tombstone “I would've said that I was doing the same as you, but when you began praying, I reconsidered. I just wanted a breath of fresh air, really. I don't sleep often... and the night is so quiet, usually. I don't like missing it.” she wandered about the place, crouching down by tombstones, reading the names, the last words, eyes so full of curiosity.

Duncan's eyes lingered on her as he moved to one of larger tombstones, one even a few inches taller than himself and with an ominous gargoyle on. He leaned up against it, arms folded across his chest, merely a meter or two from Rose. He tried to smile a little “You seemed to sleep well in the cart, though. It was a long ride too, and being awake that whole while could prove... tedious.” his head inclined at her, and he let out a breath from his nose “You even said that you dreamed... about your childhood, no less. I overheard you speaking with Ramund about that... but I wonder: was it true?”

Rose sat there for a little while, crouched down by the tombstone, her mouth silent and her fingers tapping anxiously at her knees. Clearly, she hadn't expected Duncan to have heard this. She sat down, unto the mossy pathway, looking up at the moon.

“...No.” she confessed “No, it wasn't. Of course it wasn't. I just didn't want to say that I had a nightmare... again.” her shoulders sagged, her head lowering in shame “Ever since I lost my powers, I've been having these strange dreams... nightmares. It's why I haven't been getting much sleep... I don't want to go back to them. And they're always the same. They start with me, in a cold and dark room with walls I can't see, wrapped in a straitjacket and tied down at a table. And then, one by one, demons come in and steal a part of me. A leg. An arm. My stomach. The pain always feels as if it is real, and it never wakes me up. I try to scream, but my mouth is gagged. I try to close my eyes, but they are peeled open with metal pins.”

Duncan felt ice run through his veins as she told about her dreams... it sounded as if she was all too familiar with these things “In the end, I feel so... violated. I'm left as a vestige of my former self, and all I want is to get my body parts back. It's only when they come and pry out my eyes, that I wake up.” she chewed at her lips, and stood up, turning to face Duncan. In the moonlight, he could see how red circles had shaped around her eyes... she was on the verge of tears.

“Do you know what that's like, Duncan?” She asked, but it was clear that she knew the answer “Every time I sleep, the same torture. I never hold my eyes closed too long, in fear of having to plunge into these nightmares again. It's... maddening! And I who thought... I was mad enough.”

Her voice was shivering; shivering like the cold of night, but it came to an abrupt end as she felt Duncan's hands clasp around hers. She was cold-—deathly cold, as if she had never been alive. He looked into her eyes, those that glimmered with tears in moonlight, and smiled. Softly, kindly, a smile to tame the most distraught of hearts. Their eyes met and lingered for a little while in one another, drowned away in quiet looks, entire minutes passing with only the song of cool breezes of night to be heard. After a little while, Duncan shook his head slowly.

“You're not mad, Rose.” he said, finally, his voice carrying surprising sincerity and sympathy “I don't believe you are. I think you're hurt, though-—badly. Wounded, even, and scarred to a point where it could be mistaken for insanity. But deep inside, Rose, you are still you... somewhere in there, you can find the child that you can't remember being. And, in time, we'll find out who that is. We'll find out who your father was, who your mother was, why you are who you are... our childhoods are the foundation of who we are, and you have been so unfortunate to lose yours. Of course people would label you as insane—-it's just so much easier! And when nobody, not even yourself, know who you truly are, who can blame them? But we'll solve that mystery, Rose...” he held her hands a little tighter “Isn't that what you're here for, after all? You don't follow us, simply because you have nowhere to go... and I know you're not out for heroism. No. You just want to know who you really are, don't you?”

Duncan remained silent after that, and he could see how no more words were necessary, anyway. The look on Rose's face told loud and clear that he had struck something, deep inside of her. She didn't flinch from his touch, didn't back away... she just stood there, stifled, unsure of what to say. She swallowed and rubbed her eyes with her free hand, her voice still stuttering as she spoke “It wasn't supposed to be like this... you weren't supposed to get so close.” Duncan felt his heart sink at her words “You need to leave me alone, Duncan.” her cold hand slipped from his, and she turned around, her body jittering and her hands clenched together in fists “You need to leave, and never come this close again. I only hurt those who get too close to me... and if you knew what I am like on the inside, you would know that it is for your own best.”

“But... Rose, I—-“

“Just stop!” she snarled over her shoulder, her teeth baring and her fists clenching 'till her knuckles were icy white “You are waking up things inside of me that should have remained asleep 'till the day I close my eyes for good. Don't you understand? You're playing with the fire here, and if you get too close, I won't be able to stop the burn. We're allies, Duncan. Nothing more. The moment that we get to Nightweald and find my memories... we're going each our ways. For your own good, never forget that. I promise you: I won't.” Duncan was left in bitter silence as he saw her stomp off, quickly disappearing into the darkness. He stood there, locked in timeless pain, unsure of how long. For a moment, he thought he had actually reached into her... like the time he did, at the inn before Westport, gazing out over the river. But this time, all he got out of it was a cold lump of ice in his stomach, and a sour taste in his mouth. His arms sagged down his side as he let out a disappointed sigh. Maybe it was pointless. Maybe she was a lost cause. One thing was for certain, though... she was a mystery. And here he thought he had begun to understand her. The fool he'd been.

Stuffing his hands down his pockets and saying a somber farewell to his father, he took his bitter leave, and tried to get some sleep before the dawn.

As night grew old and tired, the shadows had no choice but to give way for the first sweeping brooms of light, as the sun rose in glory over the world. Its light fell upon everything, everywhere, and everyone. Dogs woke and began to bark at one another, and the birds sung their praises in the trees and in the sky, where the stars shyly hid themselves once more, outshined by the sun. The sun, glorious and great as it was, reached all the way to Westport too, where the shadows were thick and the streets gloomy; it reached to Retby, where mud and cattle reigned; it reached to Aegon, where the smoke still stood in great plumes, and demons roamed the streets; and it reached far north, past the thousand puddles of Rimnoll, over the dark woods of Nightweald, all the way to the great city of Godshill.

Here it was seen climbing over the mountain peaks in the distance, gilding their snowy caps and their grassy facades, and the great valley at their feet. The rocky expanse swept far into the horizon, jagged and spiky, full of shards that seemed as if they had been chipped straight off the mountainsides and tumbled into the valley—-nowhere near as smooth as the plains to the west, and with no trees like the valley to the south. But still, it had its own beauty... especially thanks to the golden crown in the midst of it all: Godshill itself.

The reason it was named as it was, was quite clear, even from a great distance away—in fact, it was near impossible to miss. The city was built upon the mountain slopes to the north, around a strange formation in the earth that seemed almost like the horn of a rhinoceros, sticking out of the mountain itself. Thousands upon thousands of steps climbed unto this majestic hill, and at the very tip of it, was the so-called 'Angel's Ascent'. Rumor and stories engulfed this strange building, but all could agree on how it got its name. It was from the tale of an angel who fell from the heavens, and lost her wings. She was tested by all five gods, one test for each god, to deem her faithfulness and devotion. It was only after the fifth test, given to her by the king of the heavens and the god of life, Lyrras, that she was given back her wings. And on that day, she ascended back to the skies-—atop this very hill. In her name and honor, faithful disciples built a great church where she ascended, and thus gave it its name. It was a marvelous sight, its great marble structure glimmering like a diamond in the light of dawn... and Lucius had quite the view of it from his office.

He sat there, fully clothed, in his chair. It was a pleasantly warm morning, with birdsong to wake him up, and golden sunlight that slipped in through his sky blue curtains. His soft hazel eyes beheld that beautiful church atop the hill, quietly letting himself appreciate its glory. His soft lips were spread in a comfortable smile, and his long, golden hair tied into a ponytail. He hadn't dressed for anything formal, and had chosen his preferred shirt and trousers of silken thread, and leather shoes that gleamed with thorough polish. His feet were slung up on his desk, and he saw how they shined so beautifully in the morning glow.

His eyes fell to a mirror in the wall, and he saw that even his face, so smooth and handsome, seemed to shine. He smiled, and lead a gloved hand over his smooth-shaven chin, his soft cheeks... truly, this was a face meant to be adored and revered; a masterwork of gods, no doubt. These hazel eyes were the ones that the people would look into and awe. This was the smile that would set young maidens' hearts ablaze. These were the hands that would lead this world to victory. And this was the tongue that would fill the people with hope, and have them cry out 'Deum, our savior!'.

His eyes lingered on his hands for a little while... and he wondered. If these were the hands that would lead this world to victory, how could it be that Aegon had fallen? Could they have failed what they were created for? He clenched them together, and his smile disappeared for a little while. His hazel gaze then moved to his desk, upon where parchments and books lay stacked, and his curiosity grew. He pulled his legs to him and brushed aside the parchments, giving way to one book in particular. Through his silken gloves, he felt its rough cover, and its title carved into the leather. 'A History of War', it was. He hesitated for a little while, licking his red lips... but then, dismissing his reluctance, he flipped open the book and paged through.

He had read it many times, and knew most of it already. The book told of great leaders, leading their people to victory and greatness, either through strength of force, or wisdom of tactics. It told of King Olaf, the great man who, almost a thousand years ago, drove the ice trolls from the mountains, and invoked The Mountain's Blessing, to create those who would today be known as Mjaln. It told of Ethella the Conquerer, who lead a rebellion against the oppressors of the High Elves, the Fae, and founded the enchanted jungle of Elfwood. Ethella in particular, was quite the glorious leader. How she fought back the mad Shogun Kyonin, who sought to kill all Myaani too close to his home on the Yantsu Island. She was a great woman, no doubt. Ethella the Conqueror, they called her. Ethella the Great. Ethella the Liberator. But what about himself? Lucius the... nothing.

He closed the book, and took a deep breath. All these people were remembered for their great deeds... driving back ice trolls; eradicating the Fae; abolishing shogunate-—the stories were endless! But what was his story? What would he be remembered for, when he passed away? Would mothers tell tales about the great Lucius Deum to their children, and would bards in every tavern sing his praises? He leaned back in his chair, and looked once more at the Angel's Ascent... if the gods were good to him, surely there was something he could do... especially now that a demon army was marching his way. Something had to be done. Something... that could make him a hero.

There was a knock on the door. Three, in fact. Three quick raps of knuckles on his mahogany door, and simply by the sound of his knocking, Lucius could tell who it was. This early, though? He shot a curious glance towards the door, rather suspicious. Sitting up right and straightening his shirt, he raised his voice.

“Enter.”

The door creaked open, and in stepped the short hunchback man, Ferdinand. Draped in his priest-like robes and the hood that covered half of his face, Lucius began to wonder if he either never changed his outfit, or if he had a hundred of these robes. Judging by his smell, he figured it was the former.

“Forgive me, my lord-—I apologize for a disturbance, so early this morn.” he bowed his balding head several times in a row, and Lucius noticed how he was carrying a letter in his gaunt hand.

“I take it is concerning that letter in your hand, Ferdinand?” Lucius asked, turning his chair towards him, one leg slung over the other and his fingers entwined on his stomach “And urgent, I should hope.”

Ferdinand nodded again, seeming like some sort of overgrown mole, bobbing its head up and down “Very, my lord, very. Would you like me to read it aloud?”

He waved his hand dismissively “Not necessary. Simply summarize it for me.”

“As you will, my lord.” Ferdinand nodded again, and cleared his throat with a hoarse, regurgitating cough “It is a letter from your patrols in The Fairlands, my lord, particularly a guardswoman named 'Moira'. She reports that she returned to her post to see the gates of The Wilderness flung wide open, and her comrade mutilated on the ground. She suspects the worst, my lord, and I fear that you must as well.”

Lucius' fingers tingled, his soft lips pursing. His eyes wandered out the window, leaving Ferdinand in a painful, tedious silence. He sighed through his nose, a frown curling on his lips “I do, Ferdinand, I do. I hadn't suspect the demons to settle with Aegon alone... no, that's not the way of demons. They will always want more destruction, as long as something still stands intact. And as I see it, the rest of the world stands fairly intact... that goes to tell how great ambitions these monsters must have.” he looked back at Ferdinand, taking in a long breath. His soft features turned to frustration... but in all his might, he had to keep a smile at bay. He felt his heartbeat rise, and excitement crash through his veins. All of these people... they all thought that the demon army was a bad thing. But he knew better. His eyes glanced towards the Angel's Ascent, and realized... this was the sign he had prayed for. It was in these fires that he would forge his legacy, and become known as the one who fought back the demon menace, while all others failed. He could taste the glory already.

“I hate to have my mornings ruined by bad news...” Lucius continued, trying to keep a straight face “...but you did wisely coming to tell me, Ferdinand. Was that all the guardswoman had to report?”

Ferdinand looked back at the letter, skimming it over with his one good eye; the other one lazily wandered around, as if looking at something entirely else, despite being cloudy white and blind “She says that she has begun taking countermeasures, and urges you to issue orders of evacuation for all the Fairlandish villages. As it stands now, Retby is in grave danger of being torched—-innocent lives will be lost, if you do not take action.”

Lucius leaned forward on his knees, his fingers curled together, eyes stern with contemplation “Yes, I had expected as much. Evacuating the villages would mean arranging accommodation for them to the north, at Moonby Sanctuary... and Westport is out of the question entirely. That fool mayor still hasn't understood what is good for him, has he?”

Ferdinand shook his head this time “I'm afraid not, my lord. He remains stubborn in his decision—we have received no word from him, about what he means to do in response of this demon threat. Do you wish to take more drastic action to convince him, my lord?”

Lucius slowly arched an eyebrow “Like what? Have the Knighthood of Morn march all the way down there and shove him off his throne? No amount of letter doves could ever convince him, and I fear the Knighthood would be the only way... but I am not wasting my resources on that measly old man. If he wants to burn, he will burn.”

Ferdinand nodded again “As you say, my lord.”

“Now, if that would be all, you can leave my presence, Ferdinand. I will contemplate on this news.” Lucius said and turned his chair around, but was interrupted as Ferdinand spoke again.

“Actually, my lord, there is one more thing.” he squeaked humbly, and read a little further in the letter “Guardswoman Moira believes to have found three survivors of the onslaught at Camp Vanguard.”

Lucius' eyebrows rose, and he felt his heart jerk “Excuse me?”

Ferdinand nodded again “It is what the letter reads, my lord. Three survivors, and two of them are of high ranking. Captain Duncan Ross, and Sergeant Ramund Bjornsson, my lord. And they bring with them a woman named 'Rosalyn', from Section 9. She reports that they mean to warn the world of the coming army, and evacuate all on their way.”

No no no, this wasn't right-—who were these three fools to steal his glory from him? He felt his veins run cold, and his teeth gritted angrily. His breathing grew heavy, and for each heartbeat, he felt his loathing grow. He quickly shook his head, his lips sneering “And they are lying.” he growled, sitting back in his chair with his arms folded across his silken chest “None of my soldiers survived the onslaught at Camp Vanguard. These are imposters, Ferdinand, I promise you this. Cultists of the darker forces, I'm sure.” he leaned forward again, dire sincerity in his eyes, and darkness in his voice “These three; they mean to manipulate and create disarray, so that the demons may freely rampage through cities and villages without as much as a speck of resistance. If these reports are true, the imposters must have been in Aegon as well-—and we all know how that story ended. Send out reports to all my men, Ferdinand. I hereby declare a manhunt for these mongrels. See to it that their heads are mounted on spikes before next full moon.”

Ferdinand seemed at a loss of words at first, his lip jittering slightly, but all he could do in the end was simply nod “As you say, my lord... but what of the evacuation of the Fairlandish villages? If you declare a manhunt now, there may not be enough men to hold the demons back long enough for the villagers to rout.”

“Forget them.” Lucius snorted, nose wrinkling “There are more important things than farmers and cattle. If these imposters reach Moonby Sanctuary in time... you can be damn sure it will look like Aegon before long.”

“O-of course, my lord.” Ferdinand stuttered, and quickly bowed a few times, backing out the door again “I will send the doves immediately, my lord.”

Lucius watched as Ferdinand scurried out his door, and closed it behind him. And when he finally was gone, he smiled. His fine set of teeth bared, glimmering in the light of dawn that fell in through his window. He looked up once more, at the Angel's Ascent... he had almost forgotten the taste of greatness.
Vanguard, Chapter 23: Legacy
A shorter chapter this time, and with a look at our good friend, Lucius Deum. I wanted to expand on his character a little, since I felt he was a little... flat. Chances are that we will be seeing more to him, in the next coming chapters; who knows, he may even become a regular character, like Rose, Ramund, and Duncan! We shall see. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!
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The hours passed, one by one. The cart rolled quietly through these hilly lands, into little groves and past lakes that glistened in the blushing light of the setting sun, now that the overhang finally had passed. Every time Ramund opened his eyes from his sleep, it was as if a new face of The Fairlands showed itself. The heaving green hills speckled with the white wool of grazing sheep at first; then came the groves, birch trees aplenty, stretching far upwards like ivory towers. The lake they passed once was a beautiful sight too. He woke up to behold it when the cart crossed a wooden bridge, bending over the exit river of the lake. Three small waterfalls poured into this beautiful lake where the waters were still and shining like gold. For a moment, Ramund thought he was still dreaming. Truly, only fools would judge The Fairlands by a black sheep like Westport.

And not long did it take before the cart came to a halt. The fat pony at the front let out a hoarse whinny before it stuffed its face down into a patch of grass and began to chew. Dusk had come, and night was not far behind. The last rays of light had disappeared beneath the green horizon of rolling hills, leaving a curtain of dark blue over the land. Ramund opened his eyes again at the sound of the horse, and slowly sat up. He looked about himself, seeing both Duncan and Rose still fast asleep—-strange, really. And here he thought he was the one who'd be so deep into sleep that one could wonder if this was when he had finally closed his eyes for good. Yet here he sat, blinking the last slumber out of his eyes as they began adjusting to the darkness. And only when they did, did he realize why the cart had stopped.

The village of Casserton was a beautiful place-—more beautiful than Retby, many would say, and with good reason. The hundreds of straw-roof houses and estates stretched out to become at least three times the size of Retby, yet not even half as muddy. In the silver glow of the moon, Ramund saw how the village seemed as if it had started atop the large hill that rose like an earthen wave before him, and had simply poured down onto the rest of the land—almost like a river or waterfall in itself. Staying true to the concept, there were several rivers that passed through the village, and Ramund could see one of them, snaking its way through the valley between two other hills in the distance. Like a great snake wrapped in jewelry, it glistened and glimmered in the moonlight—Ramund was quite certain this was the river that he could hear, over the sound of a dog barking in the distance.
He couldn't help but smile. Looking over the village, it seemed so wonderfully at peace. All lights were out, save for a few windows further up the slope, speckling the night like fireflies. The land was open and smooth, the groves somewhere over the hills, and Ramund could see a herd of cattle laying down to sleep in the near distance. He looked down at Duncan and put a hand on his shoulder, speaking softly.

“Brother. I believe you would want to open your eyes now.”

Duncan grumbled a little and let out a slow moan. Ramund saw how Rose did the same, awoken by his deep and rumbling voice. Duncan slowly sat up and blinked, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He looked up at Ramund with question, but received only a smile in return. He seemed like he was about to ask why he was woken up, but when he turned his head and saw the village of Casserton pour down from the hilltop, his question was already answered.

“Ahhh, there you are, old friend.” Duncan smiled widely and scooted off the cart, his sabatons clapping and his armor rattling as he landed on the smooth brick roads. While Rose sat up and seemed generally unimpressed by it all, the same could not be said about Duncan. A great smile spread itself over his face, his teeth shining with moonlight while his eyes shined with relief. He rested his hands behind his head and slowly turned, taking in the beautiful panorama of green hills tinted blue in dusk, and the ocean of straw roofs and specks of lingering light. He looked at the river that swept in from the west, the tall estate at the very top of the great hill, and the smooth streets that wound in between all the cozy little homes. Unlike Westport and Retby, Casserton seemed the only village in The Fairlands to get their streets right.

Ramund scooted off the cart as well and turned to Rose, offering a hand to her. Rose, who was otherwise busy trying to seem unimpressed, turned a peculiar look down at Ramund's hand. She seemed a little confused at first, her eyes seeming to say 'what am I supposed to do with this?', but her eyes lied—-she knew perfectly well what to do with it. It came into contrast of just how great the difference was between their two hands as she laid hers upon his, and let herself be helped down unto the ground. She brushed some hay off her sides, straightening out her leather guards and picking straws out of her black hair, all while sending Ramund a look that closely resembled gratitude. It was brief and fickle, but it was all Ramund needed. She had been dead silent after what happened in Westport, and he could understand that.

While Duncan approached the cart driver to pay for him for his services, Ramund turned to Rose, offering her a smile “Slept well, I should hope?”

Rose paced around on the flat road, seeming almost befuddled at its smoothness, as if she was utterly confounded by the lack of dents and spikes and missing bricks. She took her time to answer Ramund's question, her eyes soaring out over the dusk-smothered hills, up to the sky where the stars began to appear, and the moon too, of course. Ramund considered asking again, in case she didn't hear.

“Well enough, I suppose.” she said, clearly having heard it anyway “I slept. It's not often I do that.”
Ramund leaned up against the cart, his heavy weight causing it to lean as much as he did. He cast Rose a curious look, his gaze rising from her feet to her eyes “Are you afraid of your dreams?”

Rose's attention was torn away from the darkening horizon as she sent Ramund a perplexed look, seeming rather ambushed by his question “Afraid? No. No, that's stupid. Why would I be afraid of my dreams?”
Ramund shrugged his left shoulder “It is no uncommon trouble, Rose. My own daughter was afraid of her dreams, once. She was only a little girl, though, always asking me to sing her a lullaby before bed time. I had to promise her that the ice trolls wouldn't come to take her away at night, and act like I was standing guard until she fell asleep.” he smiled at the memory.

Rose turned her look away from him, looking back into the horizon where the shadows were growing thick and mighty, eating away the hills, making it seem like the land and the sky were one “And I am no little girl. I am a grown woman. I've laid nightmares beyond me by now.” she said, though Ramund could tell by her voice, she sounded like she was trying to convince herself as much as she was trying to convince him. He tapped his fingers on his elbows, heard how Duncan was still trying to figure out a fair price with the driver, his eyes still lingering on Rose. However, before long, he followed her gaze into the hills, seeing them slowly meld together with the night. With a little sigh from his nose, he asked “What did you dream, then, if not nightmares?”

Rose visibly flinched at the question. Her eye twitched, her arms folded-—she was frustrated. She clearly didn't like being asked all these questions, and Ramund knew he was pushing her “My childhood.” she said, perhaps a little too quickly “I dreamed about my childhood. I usually do that, when I don't feel comfortable here any longer.” if what Duncan had told him was true, Ramund knew that she was lying, but still, he listened. For a moment, she turned her gaze to him, their eyes meeting in a fraction of a second “After... after what happened at the tavern... I've been feeling quite uncomfortable.” she shook her head, eyes falling to the ground “I'm just glad we're out of that place.”

Ramund took a breath to speak, but was interrupted as Duncan came along, smiling “Excuse me as I butt in, but I think it's time we get a move on.” he said, knocking his ironclad knuckles on the cart twice—the fat horse promptly set into motion, and Ramund had to rely on his own feet now “Night is falling, and our hostess isn't known for staying up late.”

Rose slowly cocked her head at Duncan, approaching with curiosity in her eyes “Hostess? You've already found us a place to stay?”

“In a way.” Duncan said with a smile and a mirthful look on his face “Come on. I could tell you all about it, but I think it'd be best if you saw it for yourselves.”

Ramund watched as Duncan strolled off, seeming quite joyful with Rose close at his heels. Ramund looked over his shoulder at the cart, seeing it trot away into the growing shadows, and decided that it was best to follow, than to stick around for nightfall.

Heading into town, Ramund took a deep breath of the fresh air. For that was what it was—fresh. The pleasant scent of hay made such a wonderful change from the reek of sewer and death from Westport, or the pungent odor of cattle droppings in Retby. Here, everything was so pleasantly... clean. The streets were smooth, the houses all neatly kept, each one housing a family of their own. Most of them had dogs sitting at their porches, many of them being beautiful collies for sheep herding. Ramund caught eyes with some of them, and while he smiled at them, most of them seemed rather surprised by his size—clearly, they hadn't seen a Mjaln before.

But while Ramund simply enjoyed the cleanliness and coziness of this town, Rose couldn't settle with just that. She moved up to many of the windows, staring inside to peer through the darkness, clearly in search of someone inside. She kept away from all the houses with lit candles in. Ramund saw mothers with their children, fathers at the hearths, enjoying a moment's rest after hard work on the field. It was a relief to see all this peace and harmony, in a place like this. After all those things he had met on the way here... it was a much-needed change.

Before long, however, they came to one of the rivers. The density of houses was thinner here, and it was slightly more muddy-—still not nearly as bad as Retby, though. There were a few pig sties here and there too, fenced in between the houses, and Ramund even spotted a cattle tied to a wooden pole, further down the road. Unlike Westport, the town of Casserton had no winding byways or dark alleys. The streets were wide and open, obviously made for carts and herds of cattle to make their way through at day. At night, though, they were all empty-—and quiet. The thump of Ramund's heavy sabatons seemed to the be the only things that disturbed this nightly silence, save for the distant barking of a dog, or the occasional song of a homeless cat. Ramund had wanted to ask where they were going, but he had a feeling that Duncan wasn't going to answer that. But when he came to a halt before a little house at the riverside, he knew he didn't have to.

It was a strange little place, seeming like a straw-roofed house like all the rest, but with a mill awkwardly worked into it. A great wheel stood from its side and turned with the current of the moonlit river, but Ramund couldn't for the life of him see what mechanism it would be turning—the rest of the house seemed like nothing more than the usual family home, after all. Duncan, however, didn't let him think all too long about it, seeming quite eager to approach the house, rather than contemplate its architectural structure.

“Come on!” he urged, beckoning him and Rose closer “I know what you're thinking. You can ask her about the mill when we're inside.”

Ramund's curiosity was growing, but he had a feeling that he knew who this was. Duncan had been talking quite a lot about her, after all—-not to mention all the letters he had tried to send her. He put on his finest smile and straightened up his armor, trying to seem dignified. With Rose close at his heels, he approached the strange little house, and heard the sound of Duncan knock three times on the door.
Thrice a knock of metal upon wood, and then a silence. Duncan straightened up as well, as if he was still out on the field, about to be examined and by his superiors. Rose sent both of them curious looks, but Ramund gave her nothing but a little smile. His face wrinkled up as he smiled, and Rose only seemed more puzzled by it. And that was when the door went open.

Standing in the light of a candlestick holder in her frail hand, was a woman. She was old and tired, enfeebled at the eve of her life, and was draped in a musty, moth-eaten gown, covering her from neck to toe. In many ways, she reminded Ramund of himself-—if he was much smaller, weaker, female, and didn't boast a glorious mane like his own. Sadly, she had balded so much that all of which was left, was but a grey patch of hair on the back of her head. She looked at Duncan with wide eyes-—eyes that seemed disbelieving, moving between his face and those behind him. Duncan, however, couldn't stop smiling. He stood there, formal and straight, hands folded at his lap. Rose seemed even more puzzled now, wondering who this lady was, but when Duncan gave a little bow and spoke, it all became clear.
“Hello. Mother.”

At the sound of Duncan's voice, the old woman's eyes welled with tears. Her hand began to shake, the flame of her candle swaying like a belly dancer before she put the copper holder down and opened her arms wide.

“For crying out loud, stop being so formal, Duncan. Give your mother a hug!” her voice was withered and broken, now shivering with chopped-up words of someone on the verge of crying. However, before Duncan could respond, his mother gave him no choice as she moved forward and embraced him herself. She wrapped her gaunt arms around his ironclad torso, and he laughed quietly, a few hints of tears in his own voice as he hugged her back.

“So many years, Duncan, so many years! I thought you had forgotten about me. Not a word, not a peep! Ever since you left, I've only had the dog to keep me company.” she was significantly shorter than Duncan, age having taken its toll upon her, and it was clear of how gentle Duncan had to be when he hugged her back.

“You wouldn't believe how much I have been trying to make it otherwise, mother.” Duncan sighed, chewing at his lip while trying to keep his own tears at bay “I've lost count of how many letters I've sent, but not a single one had come through. Please don't think ill of me, mother. I hadn't forgotten you for a moment.”

Ramund looked over at Rose and saw that she had taken her distance from this. She had turned her back, looking away, trying to ignore. She sat crouched down at a patch of grass, picking at the straws, collecting dewdrops. Ramund shook his head at her, but she ignored him as well. The same, however, could not be said about Duncan's mother.

“And this...” her old eyes stared up at Ramund, fascination on her face-—for such an old lady, she had actually kept many youthful features in her expression; something Ramund envied. She was even standing up straight, rather than being hunchbacked and relying on a cane for her to move in the first place.

“This is Ramund.” Duncan stepped aside to present the big man, still holding his mother by her hand “He's my sergeant, and life-long companion, I would think.”

Ramund performed a bow of his own, swift and gallant, as much as his back now could handle “It is an honor to finally meet you, Miss Ross. Duncan has been mentioning you quite a lot, in our time on the field.”

Duncan's mother smiled widely, slowly approaching Ramund and offering a bony, withered hand “It is an honor to meet you as well, Ramund. A friend of my son is a friend of mine.”

Ramund accepted the hand as gently as he could, holding it flat in his own rather than shaking it “I am glad to hear that, Miss Ross.”

“Please, call me Agatha.” she replied “Everyone else does.” her eyes then moved over to Rose, giving her a curious look, before turning to Duncan “...And her?”

Duncan looked over his shoulder at Rose “Oh, yes, of course. Rose... would you like to come say hello for yourself?”

Rose visibly flinched at being called out, and sat still for a few seconds on end, like an ostrich stuffing its head into the ground. However, it didn't take long for her to realize that no matter how still she sat, she wasn't invisible. She slowly rose to her feet and approached the old woman, Agatha, and gave a small and quick nod.

“Hello.” she said. She seemed like she tried to smile, but it wasn't working all that well. Agatha, however, had no troubles smiling back.

“It's such a delight to see all of you. Please, come inside. I want to hear everything you have to tell. I was just beginning to think you had given your life to the war, Duncan... but it seems the gods are more gracious than that.”

As Duncan and Rose went inside, following the fickle glow of Agatha's candle, Ramund felt happy and sad at the same time. Happy to see Duncan re-united with his mother... but sad, knowing that the tales they brought were probably not the ones she wanted to hear. Nonetheless, he made his way inside, away from the growing shadows of night.

Once inside, the glow of Agatha's candle spread out to illuminate the room beyond. It was clear to see that she was living alone, the house being a fair-sized one with space for a husband and a child, but she had only needed to light a single candle; the rest the main entrance room was drowned away in darkness, only faintly tinted by the silver glow of the moon. The floor creaked and complained under Ramund's astonishing weight, and he saw dust drifting from the walls. It was ancient, almost. Agatha must have been far too old and feeble to keep it clean on her own.

The same could be said about the dog. As Ramund walked in, he was greeted with a single curious eye from floor-level, since the other eye was cloudy and blind. He saw it in the shine of Agatha's candle as they passed the hound by. Its fur was as wispy and grey as Agatha's hair, and it was equally gaunt and bony. In many ways, it seemed like Agatha and this hound carried quite the amount of resemblances.

“Good gods... the memories.” Duncan quietly mused as he walked through the rooms, eyes soaring over all the ornaments that lie upon the wardrobes and drawers, the tables and chairs, the desks and cabinets “It is exactly as I remember it.”

“Not much has changed ever since you left, no.” Agatha said. Walking at a slow pace, since Agatha's feeble legs couldn't carry her that fast, they made their way into a room further inside-—a room Ramund assumed to be the living room. The floor in here was covered in a long, dusty carpet, and a few chairs here and there stood upon it. There was cold hearth at the back of the room, and unlit candles spread about on the armrests and drawers. The dog had followed as well, strolling beside Rose, who seemed quite curious about the animal. She reached down to pat it, and for a moment, seemed genuinely amused. The dog, however, seemed as indifferent to her touch as could be.

“I've not touched a thing in your own room... everything should be just as it was, down to the last candlestick.” she said, smiling as she walked about the room, spreading her candlelight to the other candles, creating a few bubbles of light here and there to chase away the darkness “Ever since your father passed away, I've been trying not to change too much... it preserves the memories, see, and in my age, forgetting important things is an all too real threat.”

Ramund took the liberty of carefully sitting down in one of the chairs, slowly as to make sure not to break it. It creaked under his weight, but seemed to stay intact—thank the spirits. Rose, however, simply crouched down in a darker corner, idly patting the greying hound. Ramund let out a long sigh, trying a little smile “Sadly so, Miss Ro-—“ he interrupted himself “...Agatha. Age brings wisdom, but as misfortune would have it, it often makes you forget that wisdom later on.” he says with a deep, guttural chuckle.

Agatha smiled in return and took her own seat, close to Duncan, and put her lit candlestick on the table before her “But enough talk about me. Please, you must have so many tales to tell! What is it like, down there, on the battlefront? You were so excited when you set off, Duncan, eager to serve your faith and fatherland. I remember it as if it were yesterday.”

Ramund took in a long breath, giving Duncan a look. He saw that he tried to smile, but it was forced and crumbling, his tongue limp at a reluctance for words. Their eyes met, and Ramund knew.

“What it's like?” Duncan scratched the back of his head, still not having taken off his armor, his eyes lingering on the dancing flame of Agatha's candle “It's... not what you'd expect.”

Agatha seemed a little puzzled at first “Oh? All the other veterans that come by here from time to time always bring these astonishing tales to tell. Marvelous stories of victory and brotherhood in battle, fighting back this demon horde, gods at their backs and shield-brothers at their side.” she said, almost theatrically, as if citing directly from what she had been told “It sounded quite exciting... just the kind of thing you'd like, I'm sure.”

Duncan's eyebrows rose, and this time, he was truly at a loss for words. Rose looked over her shoulder, her attention torn away from the grizzled dog, an entertained smile on her lips. Duncan, however, could seem nothing but shocked. Ramund too felt a pool of concern growing in his stomach.

“Mother, that...” Duncan chewed at his lip, eyes averting and full of spite “...that's not at all what it's like. Who were these veterans? Someone from town?”

“No no, not at all. They seemed like Rimnoll people; all nicely dressed and pretty. Usually there come a few riding into town, sitting down to have a drink at the pub while telling these amazing tales. In fact, I'm pretty sure there was one as soon as yesterday. Why do you ask?”

“Miss Rose...” Ramund intervened, momentarily forgetting to call her by her first name. He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, sincerity in his eyes “...those people are not veterans.”
“Not even close.” Duncan continued, fiddling with his fingers, taking in deep breaths to calm himself down—Ramund saw how clear it was that Duncan wouldn't let himself show anger, not now, not after just having arrived home to his mother “These... people. I don't think they've even served on the battlefront at all.”
Agatha seemed utterly confounded “What do you mean? They had such elaborate stories, and all of them were quite convincing! Duncan dear, are you sure you don't just need a cup of tea?”

“Yes, mother!” Duncan snapped, hissing through his teeth, but it was clear that he regretted the words as soon as he had spoken them. Agatha twitched, startling slightly in her chair “I'm... I'm sorry. Mother, of all people, please don't let yourself be fooled... you're smarter than that. Those 'veterans' out there? They're actors; damned liars under the pay of Lucius Deum. They are meant to be convincing-—that's their job!” he shook his head, sighing deeply, head sagging “You're right, mother-—I do have a lot of tales to tell, but I don't want to tell you any of them, and you don't want to hear them. What... what I've seen... what I've done.” he gritted his teeth, lips peeling back in an angry sneer. Ramund cleared his throat with a cough, putting a hand on Duncan's shoulder while turning his gaze to Agatha.

“Agatha, your son has seen many things no man should see, and done things no man should ever have to do... as have I. What lies Deum's actors are spinning are simply an elaborate form of propaganda, meant to make the war seem like any young boy's dream. But believe me when I tell you: it is no dream. It is a nightmare.”

Agatha sat silent in her chair for a few moments, eyes wide “I can't believe this. Why would he do that? This... Deum man. He's the leader of The Crusade, isn't he?”

Ramund nodded a few times “He is, he is. As for why?” he leaned back in his chair, fingers tapping on the armrests “For if the people knew what horrors lie in waiting out there, The Crusade would only be full of suicidal fools and madmen.” his eyes moved briefly to Rose, and hers moved to his. He saw some spite in them, but she knew it was true.

“And you can be damned certain that if you see a veteran telling tales like those, he's a liar.” Duncan continued, his teeth grinding so hard Ramund could hear it “A paid, filthy liar. Not only because of the pretty stories he spins, but also because of the fact that he's here in the first place. All those veterans that you see coming home... I will bet you that nearly all of them—-if not all of them—-are actors. See, mother... the only way to come home from the war is in a wooden box.”

“But... then why are you here?” She asked, looking between Ramund, Rose, and Duncan, confusion in her eyes and her smile long gone “You're not in any wooden box, thank goodness!”

Ramund looked over at Duncan, sighing “Brother... I spite that we must bring bad news now, having stepped in the door mere minutes ago... but your mother deserves the truth.”

Duncan looked up at Agatha, apology and reluctance on his face. He met Ramund's gaze and pursed his lips, seeming doubtful—yet it was clear that he couldn't deny Agatha the truth now “I suppose you're right...”

“Duncan, dear...” Agatha spoke, inclining her head at him, a sympathetic look on her face “...If there is something you need off your heart, you can always tell me. I am your mother, after all.”

Duncan snorted “It is not as much what I want off my heart as it what I need to tell... everyone. And by 'everyone', I do mean everyone.” he glanced over towards Rose in the corner, and took a long breath, before turning back to Agatha “I've been away from the battlefront for about a week now, and with good reason. We don't quite known how it happened, but something happened, and that 'something' has amassed a demon army larger than The Crusade itself, and it's coming our way. First, it hit our front-most camp, where Ramund, Rose, and myself were stationed-—we were lucky that an airship came by to find us while we fled, or the desert would've definitely gotten us, if the demons hadn't. We thought we were safe when we came to Aegon, but...” he shook his head “...we were gullible. The demon army plowed down the walls of Aegon like were they made of straw. Aegon burns now, as you may have heard, but don't believe any lies of an accident or crazy arsonists or whatever they can think of. It was demons through and through... and you won't know it until they're here, at your doorstep.”

“Unless we tell you about it, naturally.” Ramund continued, gazing past the dancing flame of the candle between him and Agatha “We've tried it before, and with little luck. The council of Aegon must have been utterly careless about it, and because of their foolishness, we lost our esteemed general in the attack. I, personally, spoke to the mayor of Westport too, but he was not much wiser. And because of his refusal to take up arms, what must have been a scout of this coming army ravaged a nearby tavern, relentlessly butchering nine people.” he seemed like he wanted to put it softer, but he wouldn't lie—-this was how it was “It was only when I threw the corpse of said demon on the mayor's table that he may have begun to realize the coming threat. I pray that he will see reason. If he doesn't, it will be his own undoing.”

Agatha seemed at a loss for words. Ramund knew that look anywhere-—the look of a shattered illusion. Deum's actors had put up a pretty curtain in front of her eyes, and this was always the look he got when he tore them down. It was never a pretty sight, but he knew it was a step in the right direction.
“This... this is not good.” Agatha pointed out the obvious “Are you telling me that an army of demons might come swarming over Casserton at any moment? That's dreadful!” she rose from her chair, gripping her cane and moving about as fast as her feeble body could take her “I must pack my things. Duncan dear, could you help me with the paintings? And your old toys too, if you want them. They may have gathered a bit of dust by now, but memories are important, so-—“

“Mother!” Duncan interrupted her, rising to his feet “We don't have time for this. You can't take the entire house with you, as much as you would like to. Look, when we've made sure that all of Casserton is aware of what's at stake, then we can move. Pack what is necessary, and nothing more. The road to Moonby Sanctuary is long, and you can't carry around a bag as large as yourself—especially not at your age. Understand?”

Agatha seemed horribly disappointed; offended even, but quickly came to realize that what Duncan was saying, was true. Her shoulders sagged in a tired sigh, and she nodded “Alright, alright... I'll pack what is necessary.”

Duncan smiled, glad to see his mother see reason. He moved to approach her, and give her another hug, gentle as always “You'll be alright, mother. Just take it easy, and let us do the work. We've tried this before.”

Ramund looked over at where Rose sat, and saw how she seemed to have disappeared. Only the dog lay there now, all grey and tired, probably not used to being petted so much. Ramund looked around the shadows outside the glowing bubbles of the candles, trying to see if she was hiding somewhere, but he couldn't see her anywhere.

“If you say so, Duncan...” Agatha smiled in the arms of her son, holding him tight “If you want, you can sleep in your own bed tonight. It might be a bit dusty, but it's still as good as it was when you left.”

“Thanks...” Duncan smiled “...I appreciate that.”

Ramund watched as Agatha lead Duncan away, carrying a lit candlestick. He smiled a little. It was a long time since he had seen Duncan like this, and it gave him great relief to be witness of it. He let out a long breath of his nose, leaned forward to squeeze out the flame with his fingers, before finding himself some more sleep in the chair he sat in.

But in a place over the hills, past the scum and lowliness of Westport, beyond the mud and cattle of Retby, stood the great Wilderness Gates. Stoic and strong, raking far into the sky, gleaming in the moonlight like marble. It was a quiet place, this one, peaceful despite what one might think of The Wilderness. At night, it was even more so. The only company the gates saw was the stray sheep or cattle, somehow lost from its herd. And this night was no exception.

He sat by the warming glow of a campfire, huddled around it with a blanket over himself. It had been a long day, and a long night was about to take its place. He stared into the fires, occasionally turning his eyes to the darkening horizon, to the moon above, and the stars that twinkled in its honor. He sat there, on duty, as always. Pointless it seemed, sometimes. There hadn't been a monster at the gates ever since he was put here, and he was beginning to doubt the existence of said monsters in the first place. Big, hairy creatures, with arms like tree trunks and teeth like longswords. He huffed, shaking his head at the thought. Ridiculous. He turned the skinned rabbit that sizzled over the fires, watching the meat cook, whiffing at the sweet aroma borne by the cold winds of night.

Though there was that about that man, the Mjaln, and that black-haired woman... his ridiculing smile faded away as he thought back to them. His colleague, Moira, had gone off with them to Retby, he remembered—something about needing to see a healer. Moira hadn't returned since, and it had been days. Lonely, boring days, in fact, now that his company was reduced to the rabbits that he eventually ended up eating, anyway—like this one. He turned the rabbit again, wondering. Those three that came out of The Wilderness seemed largely unhurt, save for that one man who had been poisoned somhow. He didn't doubt the existence of poisonous plants, but all the stories of monsters seemed like nonsense to him—-fairy tales meant to scare people away, surely. He looked up at the huge gates, his eyebrow creasing... but would they really build massive gates like these to keep fairy tales inside?

That was when he heard it. First, he thought it was another rabbit, and hoped that he might actually get a larger meal tonight. But then he realized—it wasn't coming from this side of the gates. His heart began to beat a little faster... could there be more of them? More travelers from The Wilderness? Something seemed a little strange. He heard the sound of shuffling feet, snapping branches, and vegetation squished underfoot. There was definitely something on the other side.

He took a deep breath. It was surely just more poor travelers who had made their way into The Wilderness, and hadn't found the gates before now. And even if it wasn't, it didn't sound like anything particularly... monstrous. He rose to his feet, walking to the gates, leaving his rabbit at the fire-—he didn't really care about it getting scorched by now. He wasn't hungry anyway.

However, despite all this, he caught himself in putting his hand on the hilt of his sword. His armor was shining bright in the moonlight, making him seem so noble and strong, but he had to admit—-something seemed a little too strange here. He chewed at his lip, slowly approaching the gates—-he could still hear the sound of feet. There were more than one, he could tell. He tried to look at the bright side of it all... if these were more lost travelers, and he managed to save them, surely he would get a promotion and be rid of this awful duty!

“Hello?” he called out, breaking the silence of night. He stood before the gates, trying to raise his voice to speak through the wood, but he got no response. The shuffling had come to a rather abrupt stop as well. He could feel his heart wake up and beat rather quickly in his chest, but still, curiosity brought him forward. With gritted teeth and a conviction that he wasn't actually scared, he reached forward and unlocked the gates.

When he pulled them open, grinding and groaning like church doors, the silver glow of moonlight came down like a slanted pillar upon the world beyond. He had only opened them up slightly, just large enough for someone to pass through, but as he looked at the man that stood on the other side, he doubted he would even need to open that wide.

He was gaunt as a stick, that was for sure. Slender and skinny, but draped in colorful clothing—everything from green and yellow, to purple and blue. But strangest of all was the large top hat on his head, almost twice the size of his head. He had the sharp ears of an elf, but the green eyes of a snake. When the gazes of him and the elf met, he felt a cold shiver trickle down his spine, and it wasn't the chill of night that was causing it. Looking into those eyes, he felt as if he was staring into an emerald abyss, full of guile, a devil of deceit. His eyebrows raised and he wanted to speak, but the elf beat him to it.

“Good evening, my friend.” his voice was like silk, diabolically smooth and with a prodding sense of arrogance underneath “Are these The Fairlands?”

He stuttered a little, seeming unsure what to say at first, despite the obvious “Well.. uhh... yes. Yes they are. Are you lost?”

The elf smiled, a creeping smirk spreading across his face like an infection “Not anymore.”

In a fraction of a second, the guardsmen quickly came to realize that the elf was indeed not alone. First, he saw them—the bloodshot eyes of something horribly inhuman peering forth from the underbrush. But he only traded gazes with the creature for a second or two, before it was already too late. He wanted to scream, but when the demon leap unto him and dig its bony blade into his throat, all he could do was cough up blood. He screamed inside, but no words escaped his mouth-—only more blood. He didn't even know he had fallen before he looked forward, and saw the sky. The twinkles of stars seemed like they sung his farewell, and the moon seemed so bright, almost as if it was opening its arms to him, bidding him welcome. His body felt so cold. So deathly cold. It was only then that he realized-—he was already dead. All faded away, and the last thing he saw before death took its grip, were the hungry eyes of the demon, staring into his.

But the elf—-he could only smile. He stood there, resting on his cane, grinning like a devil. His green eyes seemed to light up with glee, the blood only exciting him further. And that was when the rest of his company showed itself, stepping forth from the leaves and bushes. Shedding their subtlety, the sound of screeching howls filled the night, followed by the monstrous, resounding steps of juggernauts. Two of these monstrous creatures stepped forth from the shadowy trees, their massive bodies glimmering in the moonlight, and proceeded to hurling the gates open to a full. The elf looked out over the hills, over the moonlit horizon, raising his hands out to either side in theatrical grandeur.

“The carnival has arrived!” he shouted out, troopers and lurkers and juggernauts marching past him like a stampede from hell. His green eyes rose to the heavens, as if challenging the gods to do something about his monstrous march. But he knew they could do nothing. Not now. It was far too late already.
“And it shall shake the foundations of this world. Go, my minions, my performers...” his grin grew even wider, and the look of a snake gleamed in his emerald stare “...entertain me.”
Vanguard, Chapter 22: To Casserton
Another chapter featuring our one and only favorite Ramund. I wanted to show off what he's like when he is thoroughly disappointed... so writing that first segment sure was a lot of fun!
And, as always, thank you for reading :)
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It was high noon. The rain had come and gone, now little but a trickle from the heavens. The air was damp and cold, and the puddles had grown larger than ever. The salty smell of sea came crawling in from the harbor like an invisible tide, come to conquer the stench of rotting sewers and dead beggars. But its conquest would be in vain. The beggars would still lie here, slowly decomposing or becoming a banquet for rats, and the sewers never stopped reeking. The smell of salt only got as far as the harbors themselves, but here, deeper into the winding streets and dark alleys of Westport, there was only filth.

Though it was high noon, there was no one on the streets. The jagged brick roads that snaked between all the ramshackle, squalid houses were often not walked upon by more than two feet at one time, and this was no exception. The sun was muffled in a wooly blanket of clouds, letting only a faint shine of pale light fall to the ground and glimmer in the puddles. But the great sabatons of Ramund would shatter the light like glass as he made his way through this broken city, one final time.

In the wind that blew in from the sea, his loose hair swayed like a flag. He had taken it out of its leather laces to wash the blood off, but even so, the stains of black still lingered upon his white. The wind was hard and strong, and he felt his lips chap and dry, but he cared little about it. In the wake of recent events, he cared little about anything.

He felt oddly numb, after what had happened. He still felt the burden of a failed promise weigh down his heart, but it seemed as if it was all he felt. The hard winds did not bother him, and the omnipresent reek did not touch him at all. In a way, he felt strangely at peace, were it not for the darkening sense of failure. Everything had been quieted down to a gravely hush; the world around him was little but a painting on the wall and he, who walked through the museum of his own mind, was nought but a spectator. He felt as if he had distanced himself from everything, shunned away as if he didn't belong. And all this, for a simple harlot.

He wasn't quite sure why he felt like this for her. He had seen so much death already, yet this... this was something else. He had sworn to protect her, to keep her safe, yet there she lay, all torn up and bloody in his mind. The image had planted itself in his mind like a stubborn, parasitic weed, sucking out all his humanity, leaving nothing but a sad vestige of his former self. What bothered him the most was that this woman had done nothing to suffer such a bloody fate. All the soldiers and all the guardsmen of Aegon had all sworn to take up arms and fight this demon menace, and all of them knew that their lives were at stake. But her? She was simply a lost girl with nowhere else to go, but into the open arms of filthy men who would pay her next meal. Though she may not have been sinless, she was as harmless as could be, the poor girl. Was it really fair that she had to be butchered like this? Torn open, desecrated and eaten? That demon could have been anywhere, at any time, yet it had to go to this particular tavern, just at the time where he was not there to protect her. His eyes rose heavenwards, feeling the scant lingering droplets of rain on his face. His eyes squinted and his lips frowned in defiance. For a short moment, he wondered if those good and gracious gods up there even cared any longer.

He was walking with heavy steps, carrying a large sack over his shoulder. He had found it in the inn, probably used for potatoes before, but now that the innkeeper was reduced to a bloody smudge on the wall and limbs strewn across the reddened floor, he didn't think he was going to need it anymore. It was heavy, full to the bursting point with something... something that smelled far worse than the reek of sewer and dead men.

He came to a halt. After walking through the tattered streets, too far away in his own regretful mind to notice the world move around him, he finally snapped back to reality to see that he had arrived. Though the mayor's office was hardly any different from the rest of the cesspool that is Westport, it was easily recognizable by the pair of guards that stood outside the doors. Or, at least, were supposed to. Both of them were asleep this time, one with a long vine of drool hanging from his lip. Normally, Ramund would have woken them up and asked for permission to enter. But these were no normal circumstances, and he wasn't going to risk being shown away. He would also have smiled, trying to seem polite, but not today. Any day but today. Ramund shed the civil, gentle guise he had carried for so long, and took upon a dark mask he had not worn in a very long time. A shadow fell upon his expression. With hard and determined steps, he walked right past the guards and threw open the door.

SLAM!

The door smashed against the wall on the other side as he barged in, the look on his face and the size of his figure making him seem like a more violent and more brutal version of the grim reaper, come to take what was his. And the mayor's reaction was as if he had seen exactly that.

“Good gods!” the mayor leaped from his chair, as fast as his gaunt body could, snatching a pair of scissors from his table “Guards! Guards!”

Ramund heard the armor of the guards rattle as they were ripped out of their slumber, but he could not let them disturb. He quickly turned around and slammed the door shut, locking it shortly after. His breathing was heavy, his old heart pounding like a drum, just the same way the guards were pounding on the door, shouting cursewords and demanding the door to be opened. But Ramund wasn't going to open this door. He looked over his shoulder at the mayor. There was unfinished business to be done.

“You! You stay back!” the mayor staggered backwards, but found himself at a loss of escape routes as he bumped into his lichen-spotted back wall. The little office hardly had any space for a man of Ramund's size, but it only served to make him look even larger, even more intimidating. He stood close to the lantern hanging from the roof, making his great shadow spill all over the back wall, looming behind him like an even greater and darker version of himself. He glared at the mayor with the eyes of a hungry wolf, and suddenly wrinkles and brittle bones didn't seem to mean that much. He said nothing for several seconds on end, simply staring into the mayor's frightened eyes, as if staring down a dog that had shat on the floor. Ramund's body rose and fell in heavy breaths, and without a word, he dumped the sack on the floor before him.

The mayor looked at the sack, a look of fear and confusion on his face. He breathed quick like a rabbit staring death in the eyes, and it seemed as if he could have a heart attack any moment now. Perhaps he would have liked that right around now, now with a great Mjaln with murder in his eyes standing before him. He gripped the scissor hard, his hand already slick with sweat, as he waved it at the sack.
“What is that? What is that!” he demanded an answer, though Ramund could see that he would rather not know. But he wasn't going to have the mercy of ignorance. Not this time.

“I warned you, mayor...” Ramund's voice deep and menacing like the growl of a bear, coming all the way down from his stomach “...I warned you, and you did not listen. Not a word did you heed; you closed your eyes like a child in the face of night terrors. For your blindness, nine men and women have been slaughtered.” he lifted the sack up again, gripping it with both hands “But now, I will not let you look away any longer.”

As he overturned the sack, black blood spilled out like ink, followed by the broken, battered corpse of Trestin Galloway, the demon. His cleaved head slumped into the blood, a wet splat sending droplets flying in all directions. Ramund didn't even flinch as the black blood spotted his face, but the same could not be said about the mayor, who let out a horrid squeal at the gruesome sight.

“No! No no no no, get that thing out of here!” he cried, holding the pair of scissors with both hands, squeezing his eyes shut in fear of this bloody monstrosity.

“Look now!” Ramund raised his voice, picking up the butchered demon by its neck, holding the cleaved head for all to see “These are the night terrors whose existence you have neglected! You thought they would never be here, but now they are at your doorstep, you fool! Open your eyes and LOOK!”

The guards kept banging on the door, and Ramund knew they would break through sooner or later. But he had to show the mayor what mistake he had made before they did. The mayor had scurried into a corner, curled together with sweat glistening all over his pale, gangly body. He sat there, all stunned in fear and disgust, but Ramund had no mercy in store for fools like him. Nine lives were the price of his stupidity, but Ramund didn't believe he had paid enough. Not nearly enough. He had just sat here, in his office, fiddling with papers and scowling at people who stepped in his door. But he didn't scowl now. There was only pitiful fear on his face. The alpha male had been reduced to a whimpering pup in the face of truth, and a truth that Ramund wanted to make absolutely sure he understood.

“They will come for you, mayor.” he continued, his breathing dark and hoarse, his eyes even more so “This is but one of them, a mere scout, but when the time comes, there will be an army of these fiends breaking down your door and snapping bones in you that you didn't even know you had.” he stepped even closer, slamming the black corpse of the demon down on the mayor's desk, soaking all his precious papers in vile blood “Do you understand what I am telling you, mayor? Enough of your games! I will not stand idly by as they run down these lands, killing thousands of innocents, only because some idiot mayor refused to open his damned eyes! Look at me, mayor! LOOK AT ME!”

The mayor was crying now, the tears on his cheeks mixing with his sweat. But even so, he managed to peel open his reddening eyes, looking at Ramund and for all in the world trying not to look at the mangled demon corpse on his desk. Ramund looked right back at him, gritting his teeth and sneering his lips.

“Hear me well, mayor, for I will not say this again. You will take your town, save as many as you can, and move north. You will leave for Moonby Sanctuary, and you will abandon this pitiful place, for it is lost. Begin today, for with every moment you stay your hand, the demons grow closer. The walls of The Wilderness are perhaps already broken by now, and for all we know, Retby may be in flames. Hark, mayor. A storm is coming. You do not want to be around to witness it.”

He left the ravaged body of the demon on the desk as he turned around, leaving the whimpering mayor to lie there, black blood spilling on his shoes and with a petrified look on his wrinkly face. Ramund unlocked the door and pushed the guards aside, letting a low “See to your mayor. He may need your help cleaning up the mess.” slip from his mouth before he walked off. His work was done in this place. If it was going to burn or not, was all in the hands of the mayor now.

At the gates of Westport, if they can even be called that, Duncan and Rose were waiting. The gates were the same moss-covered arch that they came through, when they rolled in with the cart. There had been done nothing to make the letters any more readable, and the fact that it read 'Welcome to Westport' was still ony an assumption. It hadn't changed a bit... and Ramund feared that, despite their efforts, nothing in this town had.

Duncan and Rose had already prepared a cart for their departure, it seemed. Duncan was sitting in the back, legs dangling over the edge, and his face locked in a perpetual sadness. Sympathy, Ramund figured. He saw how Duncan greeted him with only a little nod as he came walking up the slope, his armor rattling and the ebony cape hanging from his pauldrons swaying in the wind like a black flag. Unlike Duncan, Rose had slumped into the hay, her eyes closed and her back turned. It had been a long time since Ramund had last seen her sleep at all. She always seemed to be off somewhere, taking a walk in the night, or whatever she now did when she wasn't around. With Rose asleep, Ramund kept his voice low as he took a seat beside Duncan, the cart creaking under his massive weight.

“We have done our part.” he grumbled lowly, hands folded on his lap and his eyes in the mud. He felt the cold winds rip, and for a moment, he was reminded of home. His hand fell to his pocket, his blood chilled in fear, but as he felt the music box underneath, he relaxed. He was afraid, for a moment, that he had lost it. He wasn't sure what would become of him, if he had.

“Then so be it.” Duncan responded, just as the cart set into motion. The driver, a stumpy little man with a horse to match, wiggled slightly in his seat as he whipped his reins and the fat pony began walking. Duncan's lengthy black hair shrouded most of his face and his eyes too, his chiseled cheeks hidden behind an ebony curtain. His voice was as dark as Ramund's, and Ramund knew his mood was contagious. Like an inverted candle, he knew perfectly well that when his spirit was down, everyone's were. Sometime he wondered why. Was he really such an important brick in the game, when it came to morale? He cast a glance to Duncan at his side, and tried to smile. If he couldn't save Westport... maybe he could at the very least save his friend.

“I had my faith shaken today, Duncan...” he continued, still in a low voice to avoid waking Rose up. His eyes were set upon the passing road, seeing the filthy town of Westport drift further and further away, over hills and into the thin, white curtain of mist that hung over the place. It was as if the ghosts of all the murdered men and women still lingered in the air above them, and the mist was a crowd. Unlikely... but metaphorically correct.

“...do you think, what we saw, was the work of gods?”

Duncan seemed a little hesitant to answer that. Ramund understood. Calling out your gods for being cruel was never an easy thing, nor was it particularly pleasant. But sometimes he wondered. They were always so silent, those gods, and one of the reasons he preferred revering the spirits instead. Who knew what was decided in their divine council?

“I think... not.” Duncan finally answered, shaking his head to make his hair sway a little. His hard lips frowned, his scarred nose wrinkling “There were nine people in there, and I don't care about how bad they may have been—the gods wouldn't do such a thing. Furthermore, remember what killed them, Ramund. A demon is never the tool of gods. You should know that as well as I.”

Duncan had a point, Ramund had to admit. He let out a sigh from his nose, eyes rising to the cloudy heavens, were the sun struggled to make itself present “You may be right, brother. But amongst those nine people, was one woman whose heart I know was clean, right until that demon tore it out of her. A lost soul, struggling to live day by day, each morning a fight to put bread on her plate come dusk. Gracious as the gods may be... they did not see it fit to spare this woman her life.”

“No matter how gracious the gods are, there are still darker forces at play, Ramund.” Duncan rose his glance up through his black strands of hair, looking into Ramund's eyes “You are usually the one reminding me of this. We both know that the gods are not the only immortal beings with a finger in the game. Netherlords and dark spirits would always love to see gore and murder like this... and while I trust the gods can keep us safe, the dark forces will win a battle now and then. It is just a shame that the woman there had to become part of it. I am sure she had done nothing wrong... but I think you'll find that demons and dark lords won't care for such trivialities.”

Ramund nodded a few times. What Duncan said made sense. Funny, how the roles had been changed. Usually it was Duncan who needed the comfort in face of things like these, yet here he sat, wounded and vulnerable. But it was a relief to know that he could put a name of who had done this—and that name didn't belong to neither god nor spirit. He looked up into the heavens again, into the wool blanket of clouds, and silently whispered an apology. He was wrong to doubt them. It wasn't a mistake he was going to make again.

The smell of rotten streets and murder had begun to fade by now. It was almost alien by now, not to cringe at every breath taken, and not to have mold and lichen underfoot. After the cart climbed over a hilltop, the reeking harbor town of Westport disappeared behind the verdant horizon, leaving only the shimmering sea in sight. The sun peeked out now and then to dazzle the waters, leaving a long streak of gold upon the waves. It was like a great road of gemstones, leading into a world beyond mortal men. It pleasant to look upon, whenever the sun saw its chance to squeeze through the thick, gloomy overhang. Which, sadly, wasn't all that often. But Ramund appreciated when it did.

He looked over his shoulder, first at the road ahead. It was winding and long, snaking through the hills like a petrified river. The hills were bald and green, the groves far beyond the rolling waves of earth and grass, leaving the land pleasantly... smooth. He had almost forgotten it, under the dark curtain of failed civilization that was Westport. It was like breathing again, after holding one's breath for far too long. There was a single tree atop one of the hills, but for some reason, it seemed to have been burned down. It must have been quite some years ago, since it was now little but an ashen stump. Lightning, he figured.

But soon after, his gaze fell to Rose. She was lying there, peaceful for once, in a bundle of hay. Her black hair was tangling with the straws, and most of her face was buried in it. She shuffled a little around now and then, whenever the cart bumped and threw her into some uncomfortable position. She wasn't making a sound, not even a quiet snore. She was always a quiet lady, after all. Perhaps, sometimes, a little too quiet. Ramund had begun to think that he knew her somewhat well... but something deep inside him told him that he was very, very wrong.

“Brother...” he broke the silence again, turning to look at Duncan “...I have been wondering of something, and I do hope you can enlighten me.”

Duncan looked slowly up at him, an eyebrow arching with question “Me? Enlighten you? Ramund, I think you're mixing up the roles here. I doubt I can answer you anything that you don't already know.”
He smiled “Then let us call it a presentation of thought. Make of it what you will, and we can discuss what we think.”

Duncan nodded a few times “Alright, fair enough. Speak up.”

He took a long breath and nodded his head backwards at Rose, casting another glance at her “It is about Rose. I wanted to speak of this while she wasn't near, but she is asleep now, so I dare take the chance. I worry about her, brother.” he confessed, his voice solemn and sincere “She does not speak to me, does not open up... if I were anyone else, I would not count her as trustworthy. And maybe she is, and I am being gullible.”

Duncan fiddled with his fingers, looking past his black hair at Rose too, sighing through his nose “I hate to say it, but you're right. She is hard to understand, sometimes.” his eyes rose to meet Ramund's “Why bring this up now, though?”

Ramund hesitated a little, his gaze falling to the passing bricks of the road beneath his feet. He was silent for a few seconds, wanting to choose his words carefully. He chewed a little on his lips, before speaking “It is after what happened at the tavern. While my mind was clouded by the death of the harlot, I did not realize what I saw, before just recently. Did you see it too, brother? How Rose, and the demon...” he looks towards Rose again, clearly hesitant to say the words.

“...were speaking?” Duncan continued, and Ramund could tell by his voice, he had been thinking about this too “Yes, I saw it. Heard it, rather. The thing wasn't answering her, though, and with good reason. Still... it didn't attack her, did it? It just... stood there.” he seemed frustrated “And I can't figure out why. I would've asked you the same, but I thought my mind had played tricks with me, after seeing all that blood. Now that you bring it up too, though, I can see that isn't the case.”
Ramund shook his head “I do not know what to think, brother. I have no doubt: there is something to this woman that we do not know. She keeps secrets from us, and while I believe everyone has a right to secrets, endangering this quest is a fool's errand.”

“I'm not so sure it will downright endanger it, Ramund.” Duncan said “She has been with us this long, and if she wanted the mission to fail, she would have done so when Aegon was hit, or even earlier, if necessary. Just... remember where she's from, Ramund. She has seen a lot of bad things in her life, I'm sure, and only gods know what that could be. Don't forget that we brought her in from Section 9...” he looked over his shoulder at Rose “...Something must have driven the poor girl out of her mind to end up there, after all. Perhaps it is best we do not know.”

They were silent for a while, after that. The minutes passed by, one by one, each one feeling like an hour. Ramund felt the urge to lay down and sleep, but he had too much on his mind. Thoughts of doubt scurried around in his mind, and he couldn't help but think about the day where he was hunting with Rose. He didn't remember many things, but that he did remember. The words rang so clear in his mind: 'I can still feel its darkness within me... I just need to learn to bring it forth, and then I'll go back to kill that damned thing, just to prove my point', she had said 'and then I'll kill you'.

“Ramund...” Duncan's voice tore him out of his thoughts as Duncan spoke, and he quickly turned towards him, eyes attentive “...there's something I've neglected to mention to you, about Rose” his voice was dark and dire, and Ramund didn't like it. He could see by how he looked away that he was reluctant to speak, but he clearly knew he had to.

“When we were in The Wilderness, Rose and I spoke to one another. I wanted to know more about her, just like you... as it turns out, so does she.”

Ramund turned his cheek, seeming puzzled “Pardons?”

Duncan took a deep breath, scratching the back of his head, nervous “You can't tell her that I told you this. She wants to keep it quite close, and I can understand why. See, she told me that the last thing she can remember, is falling in and out of unconsciousness in a hospital bed. It went on for days, she said, before doctors came to take her away to the asylum. To her, that is where her life begins. Everything before that is just... absent. She can't remember her childhood, her adolescence... and I think that's what's driving her forward. She wants to know who she is, just as much as we do—-if not more!”

Ramund was, needless to say, quite surprised by this. A lot of pieces of the puzzle began to fall together at this point. No wonder she didn't speak much of her self! He felt so blind. His shoulders sagged in a self-disappointed sigh, his head lowered “This... is news to me. I had not thought of that. Truly, it never occurred to me. This explains more than a few things, indeed.” he turned to look at Duncan “Do you think she is meaning to find out what lies in the darkness of her own mind? Perhaps... it may explain why the demon did not attack her. Do you think it possible?”

“With one such as her?” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees, eyes drowned away in the cloudy horizon “I think there are very few things that are not possible, Ramund. And those powers of hers, so... unexplained. I remember her telling me that her powers was the only thing she had to keep her sane, in the Asylum...” he looked over at her, seeing her resting there, so peaceful in the hay “Question is if it worked. I don't doubt that she means to find out who and what she was, before she began remembering again. Imagine that, Ramund. A chunk of your life, just... gone. She doesn't know who her father is, who her mother is... hell, she doesn't even know who she is, herself. She may be dangerous and volatile, but she's going to need us to get home. I think we're safe, for the time being. Don't you worry about her.”

Ramund followed Duncan's gaze down to her, and kept a silence for a little while. Perhaps Duncan was speaking the truth. Perhaps hers and their journeys were intertwined, and she was going to need them for her own quest. It was a quest of sorts, after all. A quest for her own lost memories. Perhaps even her sanity, if she was that fortunate. The only worry Ramund had was... what would happen once she didn't need Duncan and him anymore?

He sighed, and stretched out his great arms, his body cracking and snapping like a piece of old bark “I trust in you, brother. Rose may be an enigma, but she means no harm... for now. Until she gets her memories back, I will not fret when I lay myself down to sleep in her vicinity.”

Duncan cast a questionable look up through his saggy hair at Ramund “And after? After she's got her memories back, that is.”

Ramund tried to smile, but it was weak and feeble “Then we can simply hope we have made such good friends with us, that she has no desire to open our throats at night. Now, brother, I will do what old men do best, and close my eyes for a while. I take it you will wake me up, once the town of Casserton is in sight?”

“If I'm awake.” Duncan smiled back “Which I doubt I will be. I might not be old as you, but having to deal with the rigors of Westport has been an exhausting matter. There are a few hours 'till Casserton anyway... a little nap will do no harm.” he chuckled and laid back into the hair, hands folded behind his head.

Ramund echoed the chuckle, even though his was far deeper and guttural that Duncan's. With a final look up at the cloudy heavens, he too lay himself down in the hay, and quietly drifted off into a world beyond this one.
Vanguard, Chapter 21.5: To Casserton
Another chapter featuring our one and only favorite Ramund. I wanted to show off what he's like when he is thoroughly disappointed... so writing that first segment sure was a lot of fun!
And, as always, thank you for reading :)
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SteenBelhage
Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
Denmark
My name is Steen, and I am a writer. I believe that title will stick with me for many years to come, as it is one of the few productive passions I have ever had. I've picked up many hobbies and free-time activities, but many of them have somehow faded into the vast depths of boredom. However, my writing has never suffered that fate. I am determined and passionate in my work and I do my very best to train myself to be disciplined about it as well. If I wish to make a living of it, I'll need to be able to write even when I don't want to. But let me tell you... it isn't easy.
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:iconthat1personuforgot:
That1PersonUForgot Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
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:iconrollingtomorrow:
RollingTomorrow Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   General Artist

Hello! :iconexcitedhiplz:

 

La la la la Welcome to :iconwriters--club:! La la la la

 

We're glad to have you as a member and look forward to seeing your contributions! OMG MOAR POEMS!

 

We also hold a lot of contests with great prizes, so keep your eye out for them! We are currently holding our Fourth Annual Writing Tournament, with subscriptions, points, art, features, and many other prizes to win. The full details are in our group blog!

 

Additionally, we also hold monthly features for published authors. If you have published any of your writing in a manner in which it can be purchased online, please send a note to the group so we can arrange to feature you!

 

We also have a Critique Program for our members to submit to and receive detailed feedback on their work from our admin team. :D (Big Grin)

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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014  Professional Writer
Thank you! I'm quite glad to be part of the pack, and am very much looking forward to reading and writing for/to this group! :D
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:iconfatalicunav:
FatalicUnav Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Mange tak for Watchen, Stenn ^^ Jeg håber at du må få det sjovt i mit gallery ^w^ Forhåbentligt er der noget der behager dig ^^
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2013  Professional Writer
Jeg er faktisk dybt overrasket og imponeret over dine tegninger der. De er da utroligt flotte, og jeg må indrømme, at jeg ikke havde forventet det. Colour me surprised and amazed!
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:iconfatalicunav:
FatalicUnav Featured By Owner Oct 21, 2013  Hobbyist General Artist
Mange tak! ^^ Det sætter jeg stor pris på ^w^ Min inspirration fejler for det meste, men når jeg bliver fanget, kan jeg blive færdig inden for, ca. 4-5 timer lol ^^ Men mange tak for komplementerne! ^^
Hvis du på et tidspunkt får tid, vil jeg rigtig gerne have dig til måske at læse mine historier, hvis det kan lade sig gøre
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:iconbman2095:
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
A gamer and a writer?
:)
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Professional Writer
I am. And judging from your profile info, I see that you are too.
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:iconbman2095:
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
:thumbsup:
I really like Innocence so far by the way, keep up the great work.
So out of Guild wars 2, Kingdoms of Amalur, and Dishonored, which ones your favorite?
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