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About Literature / Professional Member Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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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 have no home 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! :)
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.


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.


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!
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 :)
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.


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.

“ 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 :)
Mature Content Filter is On
(Contains: violence/gore)
The dawn had broken, and Rose had sought shelter from the rain. Huddled underneath the linen canopy of an abandoned tobacco boutique, she sat upon the stairs and watched the puddles grow larger. It was quite the impressive downpour, and she had been lucky to find shelter in time. She saw all the thousands upon thousands of ripples in the puddles, and how the world seemed to disappear behind the thick curtain of rain. It was like seeing the horizon disappear behind trees, as you went deeper into the forest. She saw how the gilded light of dawn came through in brief winks, slanted pillars upon the wet granite road, but the clouds would always conquer. They had a tendency of doing so, it seemed. She had wandered the streets for quite a while now, restless in this town of filth and murder. Sitting on the front porch of the abandoned tobacco boutique had allowed her both the luxury of shelter, and the privilege of seeing drunk men run. It was a strange sight, seeing them cover their heads with stray newspapers, thinking it might make a difference. But they were all soaked nonetheless. She, however, had gotten away with little but a nip of wetness on her skin, and the white linen beneath her leather guards.

However, it wasn't the rain nor the odd sight of running drunkards that filled her mind, but something else. She sat with her knees against her chest, her arms wrapped around her shins as she clung to her own body heat. She hadn't seen Duncan or Ramund for hours on end now, but she didn't mind. She was too obsessed with finding out what her mother had meant, when she sat there on the pier, looking her in the eyes and feeling her presence. She had felt so complete and happy for those minutes they were together, but in her absence, her mother had left a hole of enigma inside. There were so many questions scurrying around in her mind, yapping like imps. “Why can't you remember anything?” they would ask. “Are you insane?” others would say. But most nagging of all were the ones that asked “Who are you?”. For all the hours she spent walking about this lonely, broken town, she could not for the life of her answer that question. She knew her name-—Rosalyn—-but who this Rosalyn was seemed a greater enigma for every time she asked. What could she have done so horribly wrong that her memories had to be removed? Was it something so shameful that she couldn't live with the thought of it? Who was this person that lived the memories that were now nowhere to be found? She stared out into the rain, filling her head with all these thoughts, feeling more and more alienated to herself... all thanks to her mother.

But she didn't blame her. It wasn't her fault. She was certain that she had a good reason for not telling her—-she always had. In this dark world, so full of lies and insanity, it seemed that her mother was the only sane person for her to speak to... and she wasn't even alive. But still the imps in her head demanded answers—answers that she couldn't give. But perhaps, in time, she could, even if only a few of them. It seemed like the only reason she stuck to these two, Duncan and Ramund... in a world like this one, she needed hands to hold unto, until she could walk on her own. She wouldn't admit it to them, and could hardly admit it to herself... but deep down, inside this soul bereft of sanity, she was still the little girl that she couldn't remember ever being.

She slowly stood up from the porch. She had been lingering here long enough, and she figured that the rain wasn't going to quiet down anytime soon. She wasn't ready to go back to the tavern just yet, though. She stared into the rippling curtain of pale rain, and saw no other way out. With a deep breath of the damp air, she moved out into it, and let herself be drenched as she made her way back down to the pier. In the vain hope that her mother might be waiting for her there, she couldn't let the chance slip away.

She didn't run or shelter herself under newspapers like the drunkards that passed her now and then did, but simply strolled through the downpour as if it was not even there. She was already soaked, and she knew it wasn't going to get any worse. Her black hair hung like willow leaves down her cheeks, clinging to them. She was thankful that her leather armor covered her entire chest as well... in the rain, her linen had become uncomfortable transparent, and she wouldn't want to give wandering fools any stupid ideas. She had found herself a little shank as well, while walking about the streets. She held it in her right hand, and saw how the water rippled down the blade. It was a short thing, and rusted all the way through, but at least it looked intimidating. She made sure to stare with it as much as she did with her eyes, every time a drunkard got too close.

After a little while of trudging through the rain, she finally made her way down to the pier. She seemed to be all alone, since most had sought shelter by now. She liked it that way. The winds were hard and ripping, flinging the droplets everywhere and adding a shrill howl to the noise of rain clattering against wooden roofs and granite roads. Her clothes clung to her body like glue at this point, and her head hung slightly with droplets dripping off her nose and her chin, but she tried to seem like she didn't mind it. In truth, she hated the rain. It was wet and uncomfortable, and she wasn't used to it. In Nightweald, the trees would always soak up all the rain, their leaves catching it before it could even reach the ground. It was one of the things she liked about The Wastelands too, together with the silence. Rain was as rare as victory... thankfully.

However, while the pier seemed utterly empty at first, she caught sight of a figure in the distance; a mere silhouette behind the curtain of rain. Her heart thumped in her chest. Could it really be her? The figure was sitting on the edge of the pier, staring out into the rain, into the ocean below. She couldn't tell face or even gender of the person, but what fool would want to sit here, in this weather, if not her mother? But when she got close enough... she came to realize just what fool this was.

She recognized him by the black, shaggy hair that hung down the sides of his head, and the white vest and denim trousers. Duncan was all too recognizable, even with his hair drenched like this. She stopped up for a moment, and watched him sit there, knowing that he hadn't seen her yet. He seemed oddly... sad. His head hung like burdened by a chain of lead, and his elbows rested on his knees as he stared down into the waters by his feet. His legs dangled over the edge, and it seemed as if his spirit did too. Her curiosity grew. What could have happened that had broken the man like this? She stalked closer, hiding behind a small collection of barrels, but when she heard another familiar voice speak over the clatter of rain, she got her answer.

“Brother... please, you must speak to me about this.” Ramund's voice spoke, and only then did she notice the big man leaning up against a wooden wall, sheltered under the protruding roof of a nearby house. He wasn't as badly soaked as Duncan, but even so, his long, white beard seemed to have collapsed on itself after being thoroughly drenched. His grey ponytail hung as well, now not as proudly up-turned as it had been before. Even his voice seemed to droop.

“Are words really necessary?” Duncan retorted, not even turning to look at Ramund. He was fiddling with an empty bottle of whiskey, turning it over in his grasp a few times “You saw me, all exposed and helpless... what more could I say? I'm addicted. I'm a lost cause.” he let the bottle roll from his grasp and plunge into the water “...I'm not qualified to be your captain, Ramund.”

Rose's eyebrows rose, her interest piqued. So this was what it was all about. Had Ramund finally found out? How... amusing. She edged closer, shrouded by the rain and lingering shadows, not wanting to miss a word of this. Like a predator stalking its prey, she got so close she could almost reach out and touch. Barrels and swaying canopies and piles of trash gave her plenty of opportunity to hide, and here she was, so close to Ramund. She sniffed at him, and she could almost smell his anger... or was it disappointment? They were so alike anyway.

“Perhaps not.” Ramund spoke, words which Rose certainly not had expected “But do you truly see yourself as one, brother? Look into yourself, and at me. Am I but your sergeant to you?”

“Don't be an idiot.” Duncan grumbled back, shooting a cold glance over his shoulder at him-—he too hadn't noticed Rose “I've never seen you as 'but my sergeant'. I'll have you know, when I was still in that haze of drugs, you were the one I was dreaming about. I dreamed about the day we met, there in the gathering tent, where I was to interview you. You gave me such hope, Ramund. Such renewal of spirit, and only by being there. So no. I don't see you as 'but my sergeant'. I see you as the last thread that holds me unto sanity.”

A silence followed afterward. Rose watched with eyes that didn't dare to blink, no matter how much rain got in them. She saw how Ramund remained in silence for a few seconds, looking down upon his captain with sympathy instead of disappointment. He even smelled differently, just like that. How did he do that? How did he switch from contempt to compassion so quickly? She sniffed again, just to make sure, and there it was, the clear and sweet smell of a soft heart. Beneath that hard, battle-torn muscle, was a heart as soft as velvet. She couldn't help but grin.

Ramund quietly pushed himself off the wooden wall, and took a seat beside Duncan. For a few moments of silence he sat there, in the rain, his great legs dangling over the edge and scraping the surface of the water. Rose watched from the shadows as they both sat there, indifferent about the pour. A captain and his sergeant, locked in silence, only broken by the ripping of winds and the clatter of rain. She watched with anticipation, wondering if they were ever going to say anything. Only after a few moments, Ramund did.

“If that is how you see me, brother...” he said, turning a slow glance towards him, hands resting in his own lap with his fingers entwined “...Why did you not tell me sooner? How long have you been keeping this from me? From all of us?”

Duncan shook his head, sighing deeply “Far too long, Ramund. It has been my secret for many years, and not a single live soul but you and Rose know this now. She found me in the streets of Aegon, merely a few days ago, drooling in a dark, dusty alley. I asked her not to tell you... I am glad that she is a woman of her word.” he looked up at him, and Rose couldn't tell if it was rain or tears on his cheeks “I wanted to tell you, Ramund. I really did. But I feared what you might think. That you might see me as lesser, and not the man that was supposed to be your valiant, strong captain. I know that your spirit is strong in itself, but even your kind needs a leader now and then...” his eyes averted to the rippling waters below “...I am truly sorry I couldn't be that leader for you.”

Rose stared at the two, sitting there, and she wondered if Ramund was being silent, or if he was speaking in such a low tone that she couldn't hear him over the rain. He seemed to follow Duncan's gaze into the water of the harbor, and Rose considered creeping closer; but she was close enough already. She didn't want to risk being noticed. This was too precious to spoil.

“I must confess, brother...” Ramund continued, head bowed in the rain “ are not the same to me anymore. I will not lie to you. In seeing you like that, back at the brothel, all slurred and broken by the poison in your veins, I could not help but feel disappointed.” his eyes fell to Duncan “...but I believe you had anticipated this already.”

“It's just a damn shame you had to find out this way.” Duncan sneered, either at no one in particular, or at himself “I didn't want you to see me... like that. Even I feel sick to my stomach when I see those other addicts lie with a whore in their laps, hookah smoke in their lungs, and dragon tears in their veins.” he lifted a hand, palm upwards “That's what they call it. 'Dragon tears'—-don't ask me why. It doesn't look like tears, and I'm damn sure it didn't come from a dragon. But, regardless of what it consists of, it throws the consumer back in time to relive old memories as if they were there themselves... usually good memories, but there can be bad trips as well. Either way, you relive old memories, but if you don't do as you remember them, you wake up from your trip with a horrible headache.” his gaze climbed up to Ramund's face, looking into his eyes “That's why it is so popular amongst soldiers. We want to feel like we're still frolicking in the tulip fields as little children, splashing puddles, or whatever we did in brighter days. We want to forget about war and all its dreads, and just for a few minutes, be somewhere else. You can understand that, can't you?”

Ramund seemed hesitant to answer, and with good reason. He looked away, but Rose couldn't do such a thing. This was too interesting. She heard him speak with a low and reluctant voice “I suppose I can. But for what price? A lifetime of addiction? Is that really a pain you are willing to go through, for merely a few minutes of peace?”

“Actually, the drug usually lasts hours rather than minutes-—but like a dream, it feels much shorter.” Duncan said in quite a matter of fact way “But regardless... no. No I'm not, Ramund, and I swore that this would be my last needle. I have taken hundreds of needles before this, but it seems the gods wanted you to see me on my last one.” he gave Ramund a slightly puzzled look “By the way, might I ask what you were doing in a brothel?”

Ramund shook his head quickly “I am sure you wouldn't think me for being a man that indulges in places like those, and you would be right. I was looking for you, of course.”

“And a brothel was your first choice? Ramund, I—-“

“No. It wasn't.” Ramund interrupted, giving him a sour look “It took me hours on end to find you, but with a little asking around, I finally did. I was worried sick for you, brother. You weren't in your room, and I thought you had fallen into some ill, undeserved fate...” he looked away, shame and disappointment filling his eyes “...I fear I may have been correct.”

Duncan snorted, sneering. For a moment, there was a spark of anger between them; Rose could feel it clear as firelight “You can spare me your passive-aggressive snaps, Ramund. I get the point. Hadn't you considered that, just maybe, I was just out for a walk? If you hadn't been so worried, this could all have ended up much nicer.”

Ramund's eye twitched in frustration as he looked back at Duncan “You wish me to stop caring for you? Is that it? Brother, you wound me. I was worried for you, not because I thought you could not defend yourself on these streets—-and even less that you were a soul lost to intoxication-—but because I know that danger is on its way... and this time, it is not the demons.”

Duncan looked puzzled, suddenly seeming to forget his worries about drugs and Ramund's disgust “Not the demons? Please do not tell me we've got another army of something on its way...”

“Not an army.” Ramund shook his head, his beard swaying each time he did “It may be foul, but not so foul. Hark, Duncan, for I fear I have sinned tonight as much as you have. Would you believe me if I told you, that I have taken a life not deserved of taking?”

Rose's heart jumped a beat as she heard this. Her mind went into hyperfocus, the clattering of rain and the howling of winds suddenly seeming so distant, and the world seemed to slow. What was this talk of Ramund killing a man? Her curiosity took over completely, and she stalked even closer; she was at a dire risk of being noticed now, but she had to hear this.

“I... I'm sorry?” Duncan blinked in disbelief, clearly baffled by this “Ramund, what have you—-“

“I will explain.” Ramund interrupted “And maybe you will understand why this has happened. See, I cannot be fully angry with you, brother, as I seem to have fallen as far as you have. On venture to speak with and convince the mayor to flee this doomed town and bring his people with him, I met a woman. I saw her be cast into the puddles of the street, chased out of a house by a small, broken man. I thought it apt to defend her, and so I did, but I fear I may have made foes in the process. The woman—-who turned out to be a harlot-—is resting at the inn as we speak, behind a locked door. She is safe, but chances are that we are not.”

“Wait, hold up-—you killed the man, simply for throwing a harlot out his door?” Duncan seemed like he could hardly believe what he was hearing.

“Let me finish.” Ramund continued, his voice dripping with ominous regret and darkness “After failing to convince the mayor, I found myself ambushed by this very same man on the way back. He had brought two of his friends, and it seemed there was no way to avoid a strife. So a strife it was. I snapped the knee inwards of one of his friends, scared the other one off, but in the heat of battle, I brought an axe to the little man's head.” he sighed deeply, not even daring to look at Duncan, probably afraid he might see the shame in his eyes “The sound of cracking bone still echoes within me. But when I did it, I saw not a man, but a demon. I saw a wild trooper, hungry for blood... and I put him down like one. I slew the little man like merely another measly demon, and for a few moments, it even felt good. It was not until he slumped off my chest and bled into the puddles that I realized what I had done.”

Duncan seemed stifled. He looked upon Ramund as if it was not even him he was looking at. He opened his mouth several times to speak, and Rose watched in anticipation, waiting for him to say something. But out of all the times he tried to speak, only the silent sound of astonishment fell out his mouth. But when the words finally came, Rose could hardly hear them, even in this state of utmost attention. He smelled afraid. Very afraid.

“Ramund, I...” he stuttered, hushed as if fear had laid a hand over his mouth. Ramund said nothing either, but not in fear as much as it was in acceptance for Duncan's judgment. Duncan's eyes darted about, down to the waters, to the wet streets, back at Ramund. He rubbed his forehead with his index finger and thumb, a look on his face that seemed to sigh 'Oh Ramund...'. He took a deep breath, and shook off his relent.

“See what we have become, Ramund.” he said, finally able to push out the words, these sorrowful and broken by doubt “This could all have been so peacefully... different. I, an addict. You...” he said nothing, and Rose saw his mouth shape the word 'murderer', but he couldn't make himself say it. He licked his lips, and continued “I can't blame you for what you have done, Ramund. I can't, knowing that I am just as bad, if not worse. What you did... I know you could not have done it with will and murder in your heart. It was an accident, Ramund. And sometimes, people die in those.”

Rose slinked away, smiling. She looked upon Ramund with new eyes, and saw traces of madness inside of him. It always started like this... first, an accident. Then, the real thing. She wanted to chuckle, but she didn't want to be noticed. Ramund, oh Ramund... you've come a long way.

She walked away from the harbor, the rain still pouring. Her mind was full of what she had just found out, and for a moment, she had almost forgotten about her mother. Her hand clenched around the hilt of her rusted shank, and eyed every man that passed her on the streets. Her mind wafted around in ideas of this new and more exciting Ramund, but she snapped back to reality every time someone grew close, running past her in the rain. At this point, she didn't care about the downpour. There was something more important on her mind.

She came to a halt, as she looked to her right. She noticed another abandoned house, hidden away in a little alley, merely a stone throw away. She looked down the dark alley where the gilded light of dawn could not reach, and saw a sign standing out from it, all covered in moss. She couldn't read most of it, but it didn't matter. She could read the word 'barber', and that was all she needed. A thought ran through her mind. She looked about herself, down the streets around her, and into the alley again where the tall wooden buildings were tied together by laundry strings, and smelled like pig shit. After a few moments of consideration, she made her way down into the musty alley, and stepped into the abandoned barber shop... she needed the council of a certain someone.

Stepping inside, she could almost feel the lingering spirits of dead spiders in the air. Cobwebs from every corner, every crevasse, leaving nothing without a silken cloak of white upon it. It smelled old and forgotten in here, more so than the rest of this miserable town. It was dark, here where the light could not reach. It was cold... and so very dead.

There were cabinets and shelves and wardrobes here and there, but all of them had their drawers torn out and scattered out all over the dusty, moldy floor. Rose kicked gently at a small pile of fallen cobweb, and an old and rusty pair of scissors came sliding out. This place seemed like burglars had long since gotten in here and taken everything that was of worth. Both windows of the little barber shop were shattered and the lock was broken open, leaving Rose with no troubles at all to make her entry. A thousand fingers of rain thrummed on the roof, and she saw it slip through the cracks in droplets from the ceiling here and there.

There was a desk too, probably where customers so long time ago would come to order a haircut. Rose could imagine this place to be thriving, so full of customers, a well-dressed clerk at the desk, pretty barbers' girls tending to the guests. But now it was merely a sad vestige of its former self. Just the way she liked it.

There were four large chairs, expensively cushioned with satin pillows, facing the left wall. Rose felt the cushions, and saw how spiders crawled out from the cracks and cuts in the fabric. No doubt they had laid eggs inside. Still, she wondered why the robbers didn't take these... pillows like these could undoubtedly have been the most expensive thing in this place. Perhaps the people of Westport just didn't need pillows as much as they needed barbering equipment. Rose looked at the wall the chairs were facing, and first then noticed the large mirror that covered the entire thing, but was covered in so much dust and cobweb that it seemed to blend in with the rest of this forlorn place. Her heart beat a little harder in her chest now, and she took a deep breath to calm herself down as she approached the mirror. Her gentle fingers fell upon it, feeling the dust at her fingertips. It was impossible to see anything in the mirror with this thick layer of dust cloaking it. In a single swift motion of her hand, she swept away a great deal of the dust, and left behind what seemed almost like a clawing wound upon the mirror. She saw herself in it, and looked deep into those yellow eyes of hers. But she didn't smile. Her mirror image, however, did.

“Hi Rose.” the image said, raising a hand in greeting “It's been a while.”

“It has.” Rose droned, not caring to be polite nor friendly. She couldn't be friendly towards someone who wasn't her friend—not even, in this case, herself. Looking into those eyes of her own made her sick to her stomach, but she couldn't let her reluctance get the better of her now.

“So why break the silence?” the mirror image inquired, folding its arms and cocking its head slightly “I would be glad if you just came to speak to me... but that isn't it, is it?”

Rose shook her head “Not this time, me. Not this time.” she brushed a little more dust off the mirror to get a better look at herself; she had made a hole, just large enough for her head to be inside “I need some advice... and with my mother gone, you're the only one I can speak to.”

“No, you are the only one you can speak to.” the mirror image jested, grinning to flash that white set teeth “But that's sort of the same, isn't it? Well then, Rose... what can you help you with?”

Rose ignored her mirror image's stupid sense of humor, and got straight to the point “I am feeling sick in this place, but I can't leave without Ramund and Duncan. As much as I hate to admit it, I don't think I can last on my own, let alone find my way.”

“Oh?” her mirror image's eyebrow rose in sudden surprise “Confessing weakness now, are we? Rose, these days sure have been hard on you! Are sure you're alright?”

“Of course I'm not.” Rose snapped, snarling angrily “I'm insane-—don't you remember? Look, I just need a way to convince Ramund and Duncan to leave this place, either by accomplishing what they came for, or making it clear that Westport is doomed.”

“And you want me to help you with that?” the mirror image chuckled a little “Rose, you misunderstand something. I can't tell you things that you don't already know. I'm just a manifestation of your introspection—not a foreign entity. The best I can do is bring up possibilities that you already know are possibilities, but won't accept... for whatever reasons.”

Rose's heart beat even faster; what was she talking about? Concern pooled in her stomach, and she narrowed her eyes in suspicion, speaking warily “Like... like what?”

“Well...” her mirror image inclined her head, her smile disappearing as she gestured over her shoulder “...there's that man in the darkness, for one.”

She quickly snapped around, her eyes widening and her pupils narrowing to pierce through the darkness. But even if they didn't, even the blindest of eyes would be able to recognize that serpentine, shrewd grin that was like the stroke of a white paintbrush in the black. Her heart thumped harder and harder, her blood running icy cold, her lips sneering in disgust. But the grin wouldn't disappear. And that cool, canny voice made it no better.

“Rose, my dear...” he always said, regardless if she wanted it or not. Rose looked quickly over her shoulder, into the mirror, and saw nothing; not even herself. She could only see the outline of that exaggerated top hat, and the white smile. She heard him take a long breath of his nose, and sigh in relief “...How I've missed the sweet smell of you.”

Rose turned to confront the man, trying to be brave, but her voice betrayed her, telling tales of fear in her tone “Please... I didn't ask for this.”

“Oh, but you did.” the elf insisted as he moved closer, his colorful attire becoming clear in the darkness, draped around his bony, slender figure. His leather shoes clicked on the floor and his cane tapped as he moved closer. Rose felt his presence almost like she had felt the presence of that demon in The Wilderness “Your voice of reason might not, but my sweetling... that is not you.” Rose retreated backwards but was cornered against the mirror, sweat rippling down her shape as the elf's grin grew ever larger “It never was, was it? Come now, Rose... deep down, you know that you want me here. Is this not true?”

Rose snapped, baring her teeth and clenching her fists “Back off, creep. You've got nothing that interests me.”

In sheer mockery, the elf uttered a lighthearted guffaw, throwing back his head “Ho ho, is that a fact, my dear? I fear I may have to prove you wrong yet again, sweet Rose. I have a menagerie of things that interest you... if only you would come play with me, I could show you an entire world of things...” Rose felt his cold, gangly hand caress her chin “...Just for you.”

Rose batted away the hand, quickly slithering away into the darkness like a frightened lizard, grasping for whatever she could find; her hand immediately fell to the shank at her belt, not hesitating to draw it. The elf now stood between her and the door, and she knew there was no way out. It was fight or flight, and flight seemed to be option here.

“Rose, don't be silly...” the elf inclined his head, resting both hands on his cane—he just couldn't stop smiling “If you wanted to kill me, you would have do so many years ago. You couldn't kill me as much as you couldn't kill your own mother.”

“Don't you dare bring her into this!” Rose hissed, lashing out after him with her shank, but the blade met only thin air. The elf didn't even flinch.

“Sweet Rose, if you would just listen to me for once, maybe it wouldn't have to go this way...” the elf moved closer again, raising his cane to gently pry away Rose's shank. Adrenaline set Rose's blood on fire, but she found herself lowering her shank even so, as if put down by some godly hand. She dropped it, and she saw it fall to the floor, digging into the wood with the blade downwards. Her breath was heavy and scared as she stared into the elf's eyes... there was just something about his jeweled stare that could subdue even the wildest of beasts.

“Tell me, my dear...” the elf continued, moving ever closer, still smiling “...Why do you want to go back to Nightweald? Why so eager to return to the birthplace of your own misery?”

Rose cringed at the elf's question, and she knew that he knew that it was absolutely none of his business. But even so, with those eyes mesmerizing her... she could do nothing but answer “I...” she looked away, shaking her head “I don't. I just don't want to be here anymore.”

“Rose, you could never lie to me.” The elf reached out and gently turned her face towards him again, his gloved fingers soft and careful like touching a piece of fragile, invaluable jewelry “You like it here... mostly. How long have we been together now, hm? Can we even count the years? I know how much you hate all the drunkards and all the filth... but you do love seeing them die, don't you?” at this, Rose took in a sharp breath, her cheeks flaring up in a deep red blush. The elf smirked widely “Ahh, you do, you do. You love seeing all the dead beggars on the streets; the way the rats peel away at their flesh, and how they died the way they lived-—with a bottle of whiskey in their hands. You like the poetry of it all, don't you? The justice... the cleansing. In death, the corpse of a beggar is as much worth as the corpse of a nobleman... for in the end, they will still only be that: a corpse.” he leaned in closer, whispering into her ear with the tongue of a snake “...And I can give you so much more.”

Rose's heart raced, her body jittering in a mix of fear and excitement, and while she hated to admit it, she felt so irresistibly... seduced. Her face was a mess of red cheeks and wide eyes, and her words stuttered like a nervous child as she spoke “P-please... just leave me be. I don't want to make decisions I will regret.”

“Ah, but see, that's the thing...” The elf looked deep into her eyes, and she felt as if she couldn't rip her own away from his “...this is the only decisions you will ever make that you will not regret. Death is your drug, my sweetling. You crave it like a fish craves water. So let me be your ocean, sweet Rose. I would much rather see you swim free and happy, than wriggle helplessly on the beaches of bad decisions and promises you cannot keep. Put away this life of heroism, and forget those two fools you've chosen to accompany... you would be so much happier with me, sweet Rose. And all I want from you is your smile.” he slowly took her hand in both of his, gentle as if touching an orchid's petals “So tell me, my dear... what is it you hope to find in Nightweald?”

Rose felt his hands around hers-—the hand that, only a few moments ago, would have run him through with her rusty shank. But now it was limp and dead, whisked away together with the rest of her. She may have been insane before, but only now did she feel as if she had truly lost herself.

“My... my memories.” she stuttered, each word reluctant and spoken as if by a tongue that was not her own “I want my memories back.”

“Ah... and you hope that the dark woods of Nightweald can coax them out for you, is that it?” he inclined his head slightly, close enough as if to kiss “Oh Rose... have you ever thought that, just perhaps, you have lost those memories for a reason?”

She frowned, her lips twisting angrily “More than you could imagine. Not a day goes by where I don't ask myself that question. But I have to know what went wrong... if it was myself who did it, to cover up some heinous act... if it was an accident...” she shook her head quickly “The truth is not important. I just can't live with the emptiness.”

“Is that so?” The elf asked, though obviously rhetorical. He moved away from her, finally giving her some breathing space. She stared at him, her heart still beating like a drum... for a moment she feared and hoped at the same time that, while he was so close, that he would indeed kiss her. But he didn't. And she couldn't figure out if she was disappointed or relieved. She felt as if she was dancing with fire—-the excitement was undeniable, but she knew she would get burned, sooner or later. Still... would she really mind the pain?

“Sweet Rose, perhaps we can come to some agreement for once...” the elf slowly sauntered around the dark, forlorn barber shop, picking up and examining rusty scissors and beholding himself in dusty hand mirrors in turn “You wish to go home... and I wish for you to be happy. Perhaps, if you will let me, we can both get what we want.” he looked back at Rose, those green eyes cutting through the darkness like emerald beacons “I will play your game, Rose. I could go to your friends and kill them so that you may only have me left... but that would not make you happy, would it?” he moved closer again, though stopped a few meters from her, resting his hands on his cane “You were not happy in The Wastelands, my dear-—not even with all the death around you. You wanted... something else. I have tried so many things, my dear, and now I finally know! I would whisk you away to Nightweald myself... but you insist on not leaving those two fools that you accompany. So what does that leave us, Rose?” he leaned closer, tapping his gloved fingers on his cane “We convince them to leave, is that not it? But they will not leave without some incentive... and when one cannot lure—“

“—one must herd.” Rose finished, taking in a deep breath. She figured that she already knew what the elf had in mind, but she had to ask “Tell me what you are thinking. I would hear it with my own ears.”

This time, the elf smiled wider than ever “Ahh, finally you listen! You please me, my dear. You please me very, very much.” he stepped backwards once more, clearing his throat “For you, Rose, I will give you a gift. No, I will summon you a gift! I have a show in mind, and I think you shall quite enjoy it. It will be a play of darkness and blood, and this town will become my stage—-and you, the star of the show. In this town of rabbits, I will let loose a wolf... and you, like a raven in the tree, shall watch them scurry for safety at the smell of their brothers' blood.” he slung up his arms in glory “It will be a marvelous show! The bards will sing of it for years to come... but it is only the beginning. My great carnival is on its way, but I shall give these ladies and gentlemen a little... taste. But don't you worry, my dear. They will have the whole thing soon enough.”

Rose stared at him, as her fears-—and hopes—-were confirmed. In a clash of emotions she stood there, stifled in doubt if she was to object or enjoy. Petrified in conflict, she could only watch as he did what he did. Like bidding an actor onto his stage, he held out his cane towards the darkest shadows of the shop, raising his voice in grandeur.

“Enter the magnificent, the unrivaled, the stupendous... Trestinnnnn Gallowaaaaay!” he shouted, and for a moment Rose thought he was simply raving madness-—but that proved not to be the case. The air seemed to bend and twist like a piece of silk in the wind, and colors began to grow within the darkness. A strange ripping sound filled the room, and Rose felt it-—that very same sensation she had, every time a demon broke through the membrane between worlds. She felt the same stirring in her stomach, the ice in her veins, the haze of her mind-—it was only seconds after that she saw the jagged shape of a demon break through the air itself. Like being born again, the trooper demon tumbled out of the shadows, squealing and screeching and covered in inky slime. Rose watched the demon with wide-eyed fascination... she had seen a demon break through the membrane, but never like this.

“Fresh from the pools of The Netherworld, here he is-—the wolf himself! Rise, Trestin, for I have a task for you.” The elf said as he forced the trooper to its feet with his cane, even though it was swaying and growling as if it had been torn out of a deep slumber “Trestin, I have elected you for a very special quest. In honor of our guest...” he gestured towards Rose, and she felt the demon look at her with bloodshot eyes “ will kill as many people in this town as you possibly can. Rip them open, smear their innards on the walls; the bloodier, the better! Oh, Trestin, show some excitement-—you are about to become famous! Now, hurry up; I can't keep you in this realm for very long.” he batted the slimy little demon on its backside, and although it complained badly, he forced it out the door.

Rose watched the jagged thing slump outside and slink into the shadows... she could hardly believe this was truly happening. But when she looked at the elf and saw the glorious smile on his face, she knew there was no doubt.

“Well then, sweetling...” he bowed graciously, practiced to impeccability “...Let the show begin.”
Rose opened her mouth to speak, but just as the words were about to leap from her tongue, the elf disappeared. She watched him take off his top hat, and it was as if he disappeared behind it. He swept it around his feet, and just like that, he was swept with it. The hat disappeared into the shadows, and within mere seconds... it was gone.

Rose was left in a silence she wasn't sure if she liked or not, and a situation even more so. She couldn't tell how many deaths she had just risked... how many would die for this? How much blood would be shed? And more importantly... whose blood? Her heart skipped a beat. Did the demon know not to kill Ramund and Duncan? Fear rode her veins again, and her knees felt weak. So many times she had considered killing them herself, yet the thought of seeing them gored against the sidewalk... she felt even more sick than she did when the elf was here. In a rush of anxiety, she ripped her shank from the floor and rushed out, praying to whatever god she could, that she would find Ramund and Duncan before the demon did.

The rain had not ceased yet. The heavens were still weeping, and Rose was beginning to realize why. She felt the rain on her face, soaking her clothes and trickling down her cheeks, but she didn't care. She didn't care as she stepped in muddy puddles, and she didn't even care to raise her shank when she got too close to any passing drunkards. She darted through the streets, through the downpour, through the haze of her own horror. She looked into the alleys, and every time she felt as if she could see the bloodshot eyes of the demon in there. She knew it was in this town, somewhere, on a quest for murder, and it felt as if she would bump into it for each corner she turned. Though the idea of seeing this entire town of bad men and broken souls be torn apart by a wolf in the alleys put an almost sexual lust inside of her, she could not risk it. She could not risk that Ramund or Duncan became prey. There were many people she would want to see dead... but not them. Never them.

She felt the fatigue eat away her strength, burning in her legs, but she couldn't slow down now. She was headed straight for the harbor, but Westport was no little twenty-house village like Retby; it had dozens upon dozens of winding alleys and crooked byways and dead ends, and more than once already she had become lost. And for every minute she wasted, the chance of seeing Ramund and Duncan has bloody, gored lumps of flesh smeared against the house walls seemed greater and greater. The image repeated itself in her mind, over and over, and she could already smell the blood. She could feel it pooling around her ankles, but maybe it was just the rain. She wasn't sure she could tell the difference any longer.

She turned around a corner, and for once, luck was with her. She could see the harbor from here—-or at least one of them. Even through the thick curtain of rain, she could see the masts of great ships swaying in the waves, and she could hear their bells over the endless clatter on the grey roads. She saw how the ocean merged with the land, and how the horizon fused together in a slush of grey, now that the sky was nought but clouds and rain. She stood still for a few moments, and hoped for all in her heart that this was the right harbor. Once realizing she was wasting precious time, she darted down the street, and made for the waters.

But as she arrived, her luck ran short. This was indeed the correct harbor, but Ramund and Duncan were nowhere to be seen. She looked over the pier, saw where she had sat before with her mother, and saw nothing but lonely dinghies and fisherman's boats. Her head snapped in either direction, quickly seeking for anyone she could ask if they had seen a Mjaln walk by, but she was all alone. A stray dog whimpered as it moved through the rain, and for a moment she saw herself killing it in sheer frustration. She imagined herself thrusting her rusty shank into its bony frame and peeling it apart, blood mixing with the rain-—then she snapped back to reality. She watched the dog scurry away, and she shook her head. With a growl of anger, she jumped into her stride again, this time heading for the last place she could imagine they'd be.

Through wet districts and broken alleys she made her way, climbing up on winding wooden scaffolding to save time by forgetting the streets. Atop the ramshackle roofs she ran, feeling the wood give way under each step, feeling the wind rip in her linens and her black hair. She climbed higher and higher, her heart racing as much as she was, and from up here she could see almost all of this squalid place. She could see churches with bell towers, manors of the rare and occasional noble who decided to settle down in Westport, and all the harbors. All of it was covered in the thick, pouring rain, but though it was a sight to behold, she had her eyes only on one thing. She could see it from here, and the smoke rising from its two chimneys. She slid down the side of the house she was upon, landing with a thump upon the derelict scaffolding, before throwing herself into a puddle in the streets. Down amongst the rats and beggars and drunks again, she spared no time for hesitation, and hurried around a corner, through an alley, down a short tunnel... and there it was. The Corny Crusader.

For a moment, she felt relieved when she saw the name arch over the doorway, but when she saw the actual doorway, all relief gave way for horror. She could smell it for certain now—the reek of blood was no longer a figment of her imagination. In the fickle light of an overshadowed sky she saw it too, spilling out the open entrance. She stood for a moment, petrified as she looked upon the door that had been utterly ripped apart, as if broken by a rhinoceros... or worse. She was too late. Too late! Her teeth clattered like the rain and her hand tightened around her shank as she marched forward, her head full of anger and her heart full of fear. But no fear would keep her from shredding that demon if it had as much as bared its fangs at Ramund or Duncan.

The blood that spilled out the front door was nothing compared to what was inside. Her feet splashed in it, the entire floor covered in red, and the walls too. Her bloods were alight with adrenaline, her head a fuzz of fear and excitement—-all this blood was so damnably distracting. She saw it everywhere; on the walls, on the ceiling, on her shoes... she felt it spill through her toes, still warm. Her body vibrated, her hot breath quick and fearful, her cheeks flaring as red as the blood that surrounded her. Her eyes soared over the gruesome scene, as she stood here, in the middle of it all.

Men and women alike lay sprawled across the place, lying on the table with limbs ripped clean off, and others with headless bodies pushed up against the walls. There was not a single body left clean and whole; each and every one of them had chunks of flesh bitten off by monstrous teeth, and they were all left with a look of horror upon their faces. There was a loose head at Rose's feet, one which she thankfully could not recognize—but the way the face of this poor fool man still seemed to scream 'save us' awoke something foul deep down in her. Even without a body, his expression still cried for salvation, but there was no salvation in store for this man. Not even the barkeep had been spared.

Rose struggled to breathe as she tore her eyes away from the mutilated head, her attention caught by the sound of gnashing in the back of the room. Her heart skipped a beat, and she startled slightly. The demon was still here. She swallowed, as if trying to swallow her fears, but they lingered like a tenacious parasite that refused to let go. She moved forward on weak steps, feeling how the floor was slick with all the blood, and she was afraid she might slip. Walking across the main room of the inn was like walking through a museum of bloodshed and merciless butchering. To her left, a barmaid with half of her face gashed and broken, her skull collapsed like the shell of a coconut. To her right, a drunkard man with his stomach ripped open, and his guts already eaten. Rose was stifled by the gruesome display of murder, and in that moment, she was reminded just what exactly Hell had to offer. What that elf in the top hat had to offer. And this was only the beginning.

She looked upon all the murder, and she knew she had to hate it. She knew it would be best if she felt sick, and she knew that any other man would. If she were anyone else she would have vomited up her stomach by now, seeing how there was almost nothing left unblemished by the demon's rampage. But she was not anyone else. She was Rose. She was the only one who felt aroused by the sight of relentless slaughter, and this was a burlesque show for her. It was a present wrapped in gore with death making a little bow tie on the top, and leaving a little note reading 'For Rose'. Or maybe it wrote 'For My Sweetling', considering who stood behind this gift of bloodshed and vice. While she felt like bursting into tears, she also felt a laughter begging to burst out, but she had to hold it in. She could not let herself be whisked away by the elf's pretty gifts and honeyed words. She was better than that.

“H-hey! Demon!” Rose raised her voice to the sound of gnashing teeth, hidden behind the bar desk; she could see shadows moving in the light of the lonely lantern that hung from the ceiling, and the occasional spray of blood from ravenous feasting “I'm talking to you!”

She startled slightly as the demon-—the so-called 'Trestin Galloway'-—perked his head up from behind the desk, dozens of strips of flesh hanging from his jagged maw. He stared at Rose with bloodshot eyes, wide and never blinking. For seconds on end they stared at one another, Rose having stopped in her tracks, now standing atop the torn body of another bar patron. The smell of blood filled her nose like wax, and she saw some of it dripping from the ceiling as well. Trestin cocked his large head at her with curiosity in his pale eyes, while slurping in another strip of flesh. Rose's tongue felt as if it filled her entire mouth as she tried to speak, and for every word she tried to speak, she just ended up whimpering instead. She held out her shank at Trestin, her hand shaking and her mind on fire. In all this time she had entered the building, she didn't think she had blinked even once.

“Show me.” she finally managed to spit out, though having to swallow again after speaking “Show me who you've got there.” for a moment she regretted saying those words in horror that Trestin might roll Duncan's decapitated head over the floor to bump at her toes. The demon seemed a little confused at first, but when Rose raised her voice and shouted “Show me, damnit!”, he didn't hesitate. She wanted to close her eyes and just run away, perhaps jump in the harbor and drown herself, but her body didn't do that. Her eyes didn't close and her legs didn't run... she just stood there, as Trestin flung the body of a woman up on the desk for her to see. She was dressed in a red corset, her face powdered pink, and her hair put up with needles and string. A harlot by the looks of it, and while she still had all her limbs and her head, her entire chest had been burst open and her innards ripped out, as if Trestin had been a young boy at his birthday and the woman's chest had been the wrapping of his birthday present. Rose stared at the foul scene, but let out a little sigh in relief, thanking whomever she had to thank for this not being Duncan or Ramund.

“Alright, demon... your job here is done.” Rose looked Trestin right in his lidless eyes, taking a few steps closer. The demon stared up at her, he being a few heads shorter than her, but still armed with blades as long as her legs. Rose breathed heavily as she neared the creature, feeling its presence radiate through her like a kind of warmth that only she could feel. Her teeth grit, her muscles twitched, and while her heart raced with lustful excitement, her face was a mess of desire and disgust.
“You... you need to leave. Leave and tell that elf that I don't want to see this again!” her words were not her own, for she knew deep down, she wanted more-—much, much more “Don't make me kill you!”

Trestin backed away, a sudden look of horror upon his face as she flailed her shank, and for a second she thought she had actually managed to frighten the creature. But when she heard the thundering stomps of iron sabatons and saw an axe split his jagged skull in two, she realized otherwise. She jumped as the black blood of Trestin Galloway spotted the red walls and his body twitched one final time, before slumping together like a sack of potatoes. She staggered backwards and felt familiar arms wrap around her, catching her as she was about to fall. Her eyes were wide and she gripped around Duncan's arms, as if desperate to feel the warmth of a living body again. She felt his hot breath down her shoulder, but no words escaped his lips, and with good reason. She looked forward, seeing Ramund leave his axe in the demon's skull, his huge body heaving and slouching in long, furious breaths. From behind, he looked a menace wrapped in steel and chiseled muscle; not the old and gentle man that she had known him to be. His white hair was speckled with the black blood of the demon, and even from behind, she could feel his rage. It filled the entire room more than the blood did, and set a stronger fear in her heart than the slithering voice of the elf in the top hat did. She remembered the saying 'fear the anger of gentle men', but she had never quite understood it. Until now.

“Spirits NO!” Ramund's voice was like a war drum, and the sound of his great fists smashing unto and breaking the wooden desk was like the clap of thunder. She was confused for a few moments, but then realized... the woman that lay on the table. He knew her, didn't he? The way he leaned over her, staring into her blank and lifeless eyes, tears of a failed man filling his eyes... she had not seen this kind of expression in a long, long time. She knew she would again, one day, but never like this. The silence of stifled mouths filled the room, but Ramund's anger was louder than the wildest hurricane. She stood here, stumbled into Duncan's arms, sapped of all excitement. All that was left inside was emptiness... and something she had not thought she would ever feel again. Guilt.

“Come on, Rose. We're leaving.” Duncan's voice whispered into her ears, and she knew she had no choice in this as she was dragged away, her feet sliding on the slick floors. She stared at Ramund, seeing him trying to put the butchered harlot's clothes back together, and all she wanted to do was apologize. She wanted to scream her apology to him and just run away before she hurt anyone else. But she was given no such chance, as Duncan dragged her out of the bloody tavern, and into the rain. All this could have been avoided if she just hadn't listened to that damned elf!

Oh Rose, sweet Rose, she heard his voice echo in her mind; it is only I, who can handle your thorns.
Vanguard, Chapter 21: Thorns of the Rose
Oh I have been looking forward to writing this chapter! Out of all three characters, I have to admit that I enjoy writing about Rose the most. The enigma that she carries, all her secrets and mystery; it really is fun to write about, especially when she speaks with the elf, her mirror image, or her mother. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it! :)


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Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
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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That1PersonUForgot Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
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)

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
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 ^^
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!
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
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 1, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
A gamer and a writer?
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Professional Writer
I am. And judging from your profile info, I see that you are too.
bman2095 Featured By Owner Jun 2, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
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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