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About Literature / Professional Member Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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Outside, she sat with a heart full of adrenaline and a tongue given an appetizer of what Vyacheslav perhaps looked like, behind his arrogant veneer. She wanted more. Much, much more. She sat there, staring at the door that Ramund slammed shut, and couldn't stop smiling. There was something so strangely exhilarating about seeing people at their truest, where all those stupid convictions of morals and ethics meant nothing, stripped of everything that made them so frustratingly... human. She wanted to trade stares with the animal within, and here, she had.

She stood to her feet. In wake of the adrenaline, she had forgotten how hard Ramund could grip, when he really wanted to. Her shoulder was badly bruised already, and hurt at even the softest touch. She could hear them talk behind the door, and even though she couldn't make out the words, she could tell that she had sown quite some havoc. Good.

“Oh dear, oh my... she did quite pull the lion's tail now, did she not?” Rose had almost forgotten about those bloody portraits, but unfortunately, it seemed they had not forgotten about her. Not only that, they had grown tongues as well. Looking over her shoulder, she saw one particular Krov lord with horns like Vyacheslav's, but adorned with a colorful tie, slowly nodding to a portrait of a lady across the hallway.

“I dare say, she did indeed. Dare I think what he might do in retaliation?” the lady answered, her painted fingers moving to poise at her lips, a look of theatrical dread on her face.

“Nothing well, no nothing well at all!” A third lord answered, the voices piling up, becoming more and more “Vyacheslav is no man for forgiveness, oh no, oh no.”

“Will he settle with her fingers, I wonder?” another said.

“Oh never! She spat him in the face, that audacious girl!”

“Audacious? Outrageous!”

“Travesty! Travesty!”

Before long, the voices of the portrait accumulated to an indistinct blare, and all Rose could make out were the endless slurs they threw at her, one after another, each and every portrait adorned with a look of disdain on their painted faces. Her attention leaped from one to the other, but within seconds, she couldn't tell who was speaking any longer. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to keep it all out, but it was too much. She staggered, her head feeling like it was going to collapse under all the voices. She struggled to keep her calm as she walked away, knowing far better than to stay here where the walls themselves bled madness, but the hallway seemed to go on forever. She picked up her pace, but it just never stopped. It seemed as if the floor grew longer with every step she took, and the portraits just never stopped coming. In the dimly candle-lit hallway, she marched forward, chanting all the nursery rhymes and using all the techniques she had taught herself to keep away from that dizzying plunge into utter insanity. But over the cursing and scolding of the portraits all around her, she couldn't make out a single word from her own mouth. And then, she snapped.

“ENOUGH! STOP IT, STOP IT, STOP IT!” she screamed, and tore one of the portraits clean from its frame. Giving into madness, she tore it to pieces, shredding it, all while it scolded her for being so violent. It was only when the portrait of some old and forgotten lord had been completely decimated that she turned on her heels and ran, ran as fast as she could, no matter how long this hallway seemed to be. There was not a shred of thought, except for precious gratitude, as she finally found the door at the end of the hallway, ripped it open, and slammed it shut behind her.

There was silence. At the end of the infuriating scolding and blabbering portraits, there was silence. She could feel her chest convulsing under the force of her heartbeat, her skin already sticky and wet with sweat. She panted and leaned on the shut door, horrified of the thought of the portraits growing legs and running after her, now that they had already grown tongues. But to her great relief, all that came for her was the silence. Sweet, tranquil silence.

It was only then, that she noticed that there was as little light as there was sound. A narrow sliver slipped through the keyhole, but aside from that, there was only darkness. She slowly turned around to face the shadows that embraced her like a loving mother as soon as she had closed that door. It was an embrace that she welcomed, but not one she had expected. Seeing nothing was nice from time to time, and hearing nothing only made it better. She stared into the shadows and strained to spy some vague outlines, but she couldn't make out what they were. Curiosity began to bubble within her, and she knew that she wasn't going back out that door anyway.

Stepping forward, she felt and heard the floor creak underneath her. They groaned, and in their noise, she found the room to be slightly larger than the rest. Having spent most of her life in a forest where the sun never shone, learning to estimate these kinds of things through sound was a given. But no matter how used to darkness she was, no matter how comfortable she was with it, she still wanted to see what this room contained. That was when, rather suddenly, she felt something. At the tip of her fingers, she felt the soft touch of wool, like that of a carpet. She stopped abruptly, staring out into nothing as if wearing a blindfold while stroking the strange piece of carpet wool before her. It yielded at her touch, as if it was hanging from the ceiling, and she could feel odd shapes and symbols woven into the wool. She felt letters, figures of men, and several objects she couldn't quite make out. But then, suddenly, her hand fell on something far more familiar: steel.

She was taken aback as a soft glow pushed the shadows away near her, and only then did she realize that it was a lantern she had found. But she had only touched the handle, and there was no sign of a matchbox anywhere. And yet, behind the glass there was a humble flame, dancing and swaying as flames now do. Magic, it had to be.

It was in that light, that she saw what she had touched. Just as she felt, it hung from the ceiling, a slender carpet-like fabric, no wider than her own torso, but long enough to touch the floor and ceiling alike. In the soft glow of the curious flame, she looked upon it, and wondered. At first, she couldn't quite make out the point of this curious thing, but then it struck her. It wasn't just a piece of hanging carpet; it was a story. Written in strings of wool, red and yellow and black coiling together to speak of days long past. The light of the lantern was meek and fickle, only illuminating a small piece of the carpet, but even in what little she saw, she could find context. There were faces adorning the sides, letters alien to her splattered all over, and tales of great happenings seemed to meld together in the slur of history. From what she could see in the lantern's glow, there was a ship, great and proud, full of Krov dancing and singing and being merry.

Yet mere inches underneath, the same ship was thrown into a wild storm, waves roaring and crashing, men and women and children falling to their watery graves. She touched it again, felt the weave, felt how old it was. Her hand descended together with her vision, her fingers tracing the progression of time, and the progression of the story. In the threads, she read how it seemed there were survivors of the great disaster at sea. Her fingers and her eyes fell on a depiction of dozens of Krov clinging to stray pieces of flotsam, seeming horribly distraught. She blinked as she noticed, in the middle of it all, there was one particular Krov that she recognized. Those horns, long and winding, and that outfit... it was Vyacheslav. Her curiosity grew even stronger, eager to know where this ended—but then she found, that the end was much closer than she had anticipated. Her fingers suddenly touched little but thin air, as she came to the end of the carpet's weave. The story was left in painful ambivalence, and she found herself fiddling with the unwoven string at the end of the carpet, as if trying to squeeze the last of the tale out of them.

“Hmm... I really should pull myself together to weave that last bit, shouldn't I?”

Rose bounded to her feet and whipped around to the unfamiliar voice in the shadows, one hand clenched on the lantern's steel and the other one balled in a fist. She thrust out the lantern at where she had heard the voice, and found... nothing. Only more darkness. Her eyes darted everywhere, her breath stuck in her throat and her heart thrown into anxiety again, pounding wildly. But no matter where she turned the lantern, there was no one. Could it just have been her mind playing tricks on her again?

“Ahem... down here.” the voice spoke again, and only then did Rose realize that she had been looking the wrong way all this time. She had turned left and right, but never did she stop to consider looking downwards. For as she did, she found that the source of the voice was nothing of what she had anticipated. Not even close.

Standing upon stumpy legs no larger than her own outstretched hand, what she saw seemed like something pulled straight from a young child's dream. The light from her lantern reflected in the eyes of a cat, but unlike the feline eyes of Vyacheslav, there was a matching head to follow this time. Whiskers, perked ears, tan fur slashed with black, yet no matter how much this little thing looked like a cat, she knew perfectly well that it was not. For unlike cats, this one stood upright on its hind paws; for unlike cats, this one sported a pair of trousers and a velvet shirt in the traditional colors of house Zakadiev; for unlike cats... this one spoke.

“Oh... I see how it is. You're new here, aren't you?” the creature before her reached no taller than her knees, yet it had a voice oddly deep, oddly masculine and refined. Its eyes rolled, and its hands were folded behind its back-—for it was hands it had, not paws. This confused Rose perhaps a bit more than necessary, since it stood on paws, yet on its furry little wrists, there were hands. Not to mention it didn't have a tail either. It was some strange amalgamation between a cat and... something. Rose slowly nodded, still not wholly convinced that this thing wasn't just another hallucination.

“I suppose I should have deduced that, judging by how you tore apart that portrait, in the hallway.” the creature looked up at her, big eyes squinted slightly and whiskers twitching “That was a really nice portrait. Lord Anatoly was a very loved man, and now he's in pieces. How does that make you feel?”

Rose was, needless to say, rather stifled. She stared down at the curious cat-creature, and saw how it seemed so disappointed in her. She didn't even know that cats could make that kind of expression, yet there it was. But then again: this wasn't really a cat, was it?

“I... I didn't mean to.” was all Rose could stutter out.

“Didn't mean to? It was surprisingly well done for an accident, my dear.” the cat-creature huffed, tiny arms folded “Well, I suppose I'll just have to clean that mess up myself, don't I?”

Rose didn't say anything. Or rather, she couldn't say anything. She hadn't the faintest clue of how to keep a conversation with this little thing, and she couldn't decide whether to kneel down or not, in fear of seeming condescending. She stared at the creature, and tried as hard as she could to put a name on what it was, but nothing came up. For several painful seconds, she stood there with a half-open mouth, waiting for words to spill out. But they never did.

The cat-creature closed its eyes briefly, and let out a long sigh through its nose “Right... I'm sorry, am I being rude? I'm sure you didn't know that tearing portraits up was considered... uhm... inappropriate. Would you like a seat?”

Rose wasn't given a chance to answer that, before the sound of wood grinding on wood came from somewhere within the darkness-—she nearly jumped as she saw a chair come sliding into her bubble of light, and positioned itself behind her. She watched as another chair, though far smaller, glided in from another end of the room and gave the cat-creature the same treatment. Only then did she notice the faint glimmer of magic lingering on the creature's fingers, as it took a seat.

“You must be horribly confused. Do you know where you are, dare I ask?”

Rose sat on the chair, nervously twiddling her thumbs as she looked around the darkness, that very same question running through her mind. Where was she, exactly? She wanted to say House Zakadiev, but she knew perfectly well that wasn't the answer her host was looking for. She chewed at her lower lip, and all she could do, was shake her head again.

“Well, I can't say I'm surprised.” the creature said, leaning back in the little chair, tiny hands folded behind its feline head. What confused her most about this little thing, was that this little thing had the head of a cat, yet she couldn't put a finger on what the rest of it was. It certainly wasn't human, what with paws and fur everywhere, not to mention its size-—or lack thereof. There were many of these odd amalgamations in The Mortal Realm, but it was always possible to tell what they were; the Myaani being a mix between man and fox; the Krov a mish-mash of several animals; there were even these half-human, half-lizard creatures from the north, that she had never had the dread of meeting. She couldn't quite remember their name.

“You're in the Zakadiev history hall, where everything the house experiences is woven into these tapestries, forever to be treasured, forever to be recalled in times of dire, to see if we've experienced something alike it before—-and thus, how to handle it. But... I don't recall ever having heard of a case like this. It may just be the first time the house has experienced a weak-blood enter its halls only to obliterate a very treasured family portrait. Do you think I should weave that into the tapestry as well?”

Rose felt like snapping at the cat-creature's vicious sarcasm, but she stayed her tongue. Instead, she narrowed her eyes a little at the curious thing it had called her “Weak-blood?”

For a moment, it seemed amused. A little smile took shape beneath its whiskers, its teeth bared to gleam ever so briefly in the glow of her lantern “That's an interesting story, actually. Go back nine hundred years, and you won't find my kind being able to call you that. In fact, go back a bit more, you won't find my kind at all!”

Rose watched with curiosity, as the little creature scooted off its chair, and turned toward the tapestry that was only visible as a faint silhouette, if she didn't stand close with her lantern. But all that quickly proved unnecessary, once the creature raised its tiny right hand, and clicked its fingers.

A pale white spark flew from the tips, and in that spark, dozens of candles were lit. The shadows were driven back and eradicated, Rose's eyes stinging as light suddenly washed over the room, candle after candle after candle bursting aflame at the mere click of the cat-creature's fingers. And in that light, Rose saw that the tapestry she had studied was nowhere near alone; it was simply the front most one, the most recent one. Behind it, countless tapestries stretched far into the back of the room, standing densely packed like a forest of wool and weave. Her gaze lengthened, and she had stood to her feet before she knew it, now staring at a thousand years woven into wool, telling all the tales this house had to give-—perhaps even more than that.

“Stay close now—-and try not to touch anything. These tapestries are the one thing I would rather not have you destroy.”

Rose didn't answer that, but she knew better than to defy it too. As the little creature waddled forth on its stumpy legs, Rose kept close, all while studying the forest of history that she moved through. It was like taking a journey through time; the further back into the room they went, the further back in time they did too. Stories of great men and women spilled out over the woolen tapestries left and right, thousands of proud faces unknown to her, each and every one claiming an immortal place in the history of this strange people. Upon closer inspection, she noticed a few points where the tapestries told of her host's kind as well, standing upon the shoulders of Krov, seeming no less proud despite their lack of size and strength. But as she came to the very back of the room, there was one tapestry where they seemed to be the focus of the entire thing.

“There's one thing you need to know, dear.” her host said, as it came to a stop before the tapestry, looking up at it with a proud smile on its little lips “When someone calls you 'weak-blood', don't take it as an insult. It is mere fact. It is like calling a cow a cow; the cow won't mind, because it is, in fact, a cow. The same goes for you.” it looked up at her, and kept its smile “We mean no offense, when we say it. Your blood is just inherently weaker, hence the name. As you may or may not know, Krov society revolves around blood-—especially their own blood. Their blood is their identity, their very selves, while their bodies are simply vessels to carry it around. It is, to them, what a soul is to you. That is why they take so much pride in it.”

Rose was rather confused by now. She looked down at the creature, lips stiff “But... you're not a Krov. Are you?”

To this, the creature only seemed to smile even more “I'm glad you asked.” it said, and turned its gaze on the tapestry that towered before it. Rose too looked upon it, sharing a moment of silent study. She let her own stare roll down the tapestry like a raindrop trickling down the surface. There were many things here she didn't understand, having no sense of context or symbolic understanding of what it all might mean. To her, most of it was cryptic and senseless. All she saw, when looking at the top of the tapestry, was what seemed like an arid wasteland with a strange red river running in a perfect circle around itself.

“To answer your question: no, I'm not Krov. I am part of a nine-hundred year old race known as the Eiei, and what you are looking upon, is the story of our creation. Look there.” its tiny hand pointed up at the red river “That is the Bloodstream. You humans believe in a place of comfort and happiness where good men go when they die-—or, if they have lived a wicked life, are doomed to either walk the earth as ghosts, or have their souls stolen and molded into demons by the king of the Netherworld, Locux. Krov and Eiei beliefs don't quite work like that. No matter how we lived in life, we always return to our own realm of the dead: the Bloodstream. It leaves little wonder as to why our understandings of morality are so... different.”

Rose looked back at the weave, and found this only to be even more puzzling. She looked back at her host “But... it's all barren. Who would want to go there when they die?”

“Ah. Correction: it was barren. Look further down, dear.” her host said, and gestured to the tapestry again. And true enough, mere inches below, there was a depiction of the very same red river-—but this one was surrounded by lush greenery, and the river circled around a huge white flower. Furthermore, Rose noticed how the blood red stream was surrounded by dozens upon dozens of similar flowers, but these were far smaller than the one in the middle.

“Most people think these barren ages as years where the Krov were incomplete; where a lot of earth had gone untended, and left to wither in time. The Krov believe that once they die, their blood returns to the Bloodstream, to become one with the river from whence they came, mixed in with it, soon to be transferred into a new body when the time is right. But we Eiei don't return to the river; we return to the earth. Every time an Eiei dies, a flower will whither-—but in its wake, it will leave a seed to give life to a new one. The flowers draw strength from the river, and in return, they fulfill the emptiness that the Krov have lived with, for so many years.”

Rose's eyes moved between the tapestry, and her host, still curious “And the big one?”

“The big flower?” Her host asked, a brief glance cast up at her, smiling “That's Ooo, the first of the Eiei.”

Rose gave her host a puzzled look “Ooo?” she asked, wondering what that curious sound was. Was that a name?

Her host nodded once “Yes, Ooo. You'll find that everything Eiei, has no consonants. I, myself, am named Aei.” it flashed a little smile, a hand at its chest, followed by a tiny bow “If you wish, you could speak our entire language without ever closing your mouth. Truth be told, I had a hard time getting used to these hard clicks and snaps that your kind put in your words. Quite... brash, if you ask me. Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes, Ooo!” Aei turned its eyes back on the tapestry, and the great big flower in the middle of it all.

“When he died, many centuries ago, his flower never withered. It only continued to grow, and eventually became the closest equivalent to what you know as a god. Ooo oversees and protects sapling flowers, while making sure that the Bloodstream remains clean of any unwanted filth. He wasn't always a 'god', though. Once, he was just like me. Look.” it looked back at the tapestry, its pointed finger now falling a few more inches downwards.

Rose's attention followed, and in its trail, she found a new part of the story. This one was of a young boy, Krov of course, with both hands clasped in those of a grown man before him. She couldn't recognize either of them like she had recognized Vyacheslav, but she saw how there was something rather curious woven in behind them; a door, of sorts. Bright white light washed out from the door, as if opening up to a world beyond mortal reach.

“The story of our creation, is a rather... unearthly one, most would think.” Aei pointed up at the woven picture “The boy there, is Matvey. A very common name within Krov society-—one of the Zakadiev sons is named Matvey, in fact—-though this Matvey was a boy who changed... everything. His father was a very ambitious man, determined to step over the boundaries of mortal right and wrong. Some find his actions just, and true-—others find them to be despicable, but with a fascinating outcome. You see, he wanted to go somewhere no other Krov had before.” its eyes rose a few inches “To the Bloodstream. He used his son as a bridge of sorts, putting him somewhere between life and death, so that the membrane between worlds could be weakened. Most thought him mad, at the time, but mad or not, his success cannot be refuted. For he succeeded in the utmost spectacular way.”

Rose followed Aei's stare to the open door, from where the light shone “He was the first Krov to ever set foot inside the world of the dead. And he made certain not to waste his time there. In his pocket, he carried with him the seed that would bloom to become a whole new form of life: my kind. It was a simple flower seed, but when planted near the life-giving blood of the stream, it became so much more. In the short time he had, he planted the seed on the small island around which the stream flows... and I think you can figure out where the story goes from there.”

Rose could, but in truth, she didn't even have to. For as she let her attention trickle even lower, down to the bottom of the tapestry, she saw a depiction of the same young boy named Matvey—-but this time, he was accompanied by the one that had to be Ooo. Sitting on his lap, seeming quite dumbfounded, Rose found that the god of the Eiei struck her as rather... fat. Chubby little thing he was, sitting there on the young boy's lap, dumb as a newborn child.

“And that's all you'll get today, I'm afraid. History lesson over.” Aei said, turning on its heel to look up at Rose “In all honesty, that became a little longer than I had expected. Did I bore you?”

Rose looked down at Aei, the little creature who didn't reach higher than her knees, and gave a humble shrug “Not particularly. Could be worse. I could be listening to Vyacheslav and a friend of mine bicker 'till the sun went down and the demons started breaking down the gates.”

Aei's lips scrunched slightly, a brief glimpse of dismay in those large eyes “Hrm, yes, I've heard about that.” its ears waggled slightly, to illustrate the point “Who hasn't, these days? The rumors are going wild, and no one seems to agree on what's going on. The only things people are certain of, seems to be that whatever scouts they send out, never return. This Dawn rebellion is the first thing we've seen coming from the south, since the fires began.” Rose followed after Aei, as it sauntered out of the forest of wool and days long past, waddling on those stumpy little legs “Though I can deduce you're no fan of politics, so I'll spare you the bother. Would you like me to show you the way out?”

Rose had already put her hand on the doorknob, before she recalled the reason why she was here in the first place. Even now, the hairs on her neck seemed to rise, and anger set itself in her stomach like a gnawing parasite. She let go of the doorknob, and turned to face Aei.

“Is there... another way out?”

This time, it was Aei's turn to look puzzled “From this room? I'm afraid not. Why? Is there someone out there you'd rather avoid.”

Rose knew perfectly well that the portraits were all just in her head, and they couldn't harm her... but still, she dreaded having to face them again. Just like a child knew just as well that there wasn't anything in the darkness, didn't necessarily make them any less afraid of them. She gave a reluctant nod.

“Hm. Very well. I would ask, but I'm sure you have your reasons.” Aei said, a glance cast at the door “Fortunately, while there might be no current ways out, aside from that door... we could make one. How sturdy is your gut, dear?”

Rose seemed quite perplexed “Excuse me?”

Aei reformulated “Imagine you're on a boat, and a storm hits. The boat rocks wildly, everything is thrown hither and dither, passengers included. Would you throw up?”

Rose had a hard time seeing where this was going “I... I don't think so. Why?”

Aei smiled “Because you might need that sturdiness now, dear. Apologies, in advance, if you do end up vomiting.”

Adrenaline shot through Rose's body “Wait, stop, I-—“

She wasn't given a chance to speak, before Aei's little hands clapped together, a shock of blue magic sending her senses into complete disarray. Everything felt cold, disjointed and distant—-but a second later, it felt as if she was back in the Wastelands, blasted by that merciless scorch. Everything seemed to blur, blue magic encroaching on her vision to eat away everything around her. The Zakadiev history hall was washed away by Aei's magic, and she felt herself be thrown through reality, and what lay beyond. Only seconds before she popped out the other end, she swore that she could detect a faint smell of roast chicken.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 5
In which we received a better look at the Krov, and the society around which they revolve. I've been quite excited to write this chapter, as the Krov are undoubtedly one of my favorite races within The Mortal Realm, simply because of the way they challenge mortal understanding of right and wrong, of morals, of ethics. In the eyes of Krov, it is survival of the fittest. And the Krov are, without a doubt, the fittest of them all.
This chapter is named 'Blood Red Velvet', and for it, I've been listening a lot to the darker stuff of Adrian Von Ziegler (if you don't know him, check him out - he's a genius!). This one in particular:…

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
Sometimes, Rose wondered why it rained. No one had ever told her the reason; not that she could remember, at least. Looking upwards, seeing the skyline of grey stone buildings and feeling the clouds weep unto her cheeks and in her eyes, Rose kept wondering what made the heavens so sad. She had been looking more upwards than forwards as she followed Ramund around the city of Moonby, caring more for the wonder of nature, than the wonder of man. What bothered her the most, was that she had seen rain so many times before, yet never had she understood why it was there. She remembered asking some of the doctors in the asylum why, but each and every one had a different explanation. Some said that it was simply the sun evaporating water from the ocean, creating clouds that condensed in cooler areas. Others said that it was because an angel had been unjustly killed, and all gods and spirits and fellow angels wept in mourning. Rose thought that the gods must have grown quite tired of crying by now, knowing that the angels were at war with the demons. And in war, death was no stranger.

However, she distinctly remembered the explanation that one Cleanser had given her. It was Ahearn, the one good soul to come and comfort her in darker times, to bring her books and food and smiles. She remembered that day quite clearly. Or maybe it was a night. In Nightweald, it was hard to tell the difference. But she remembered that it was raining, for she could hear it clattering on the granite walls of her cell, and the musty dampness in the air. She remembered asking Ahearn why it rained, and to that, he said that it rained because it had to. If there was no rain, there would be no water for the plants, and without the plants, there would be no animals; it was all part of a greater cycle that made one day of rain worth it in the long run. She remembered him saying that this went for people too. He said that one day of grief meant for greater appreciation of happiness later on. A life of happiness alone would grow dull quite quickly, and that grief was there to give contrast to the good things in life. Rose had wondered what he meant by that. But more importantly, she had wondered when she would have these good things in life. For as long as she could remember—-and that wasn't particularly long at all, at that point-—she could not recall a single day where it did not rain.

It was different here, though. Rose had a hard time understanding it at first, but the more she wandered through the city of Moonby, the more she noticed that rain was as much a part of this city's life, as it was hers. But differently. In the silence she and Ramund kept, she noticed how all the grey houses, big and small, brick and wood, all were made to dance with the rain somehow. Aqueducts wound in between the taller houses, the manors of smooth stone and pretty gardens, and there was not a single road where the sides were not designed to guide the rainwater into the rivers that flowed through the city like veins through a body. Even the smaller houses, the ones of decrepit wood and mossy brick, were built so that the creeks could slip right under the floorboards without even breaking their stride. Most of those with gardens to their houses had even created their own personal creeks and ponds from redirecting the water's flow. Rose found this rather curious. The very architecture of Moonby was one with the rain; if the rain would suddenly just disappear one day, it would leave the entire city looking odd and pointless. But while the heavens still cried, man and nature worked in fascinating unison.

This was especially true, she noticed, as she followed Ramund into what he mentioned was the 'noble district'. Though he really didn't have to say that, for the architecture spoke the very same, and much louder than he ever could. Where before the homes of grey stone and moss and mud stood clenched together like soldiers steeped in a tight formation, the homes here were given a wide berth to reach out and spread their audacious grandeur. For grandeur, there was enough of. Manors tall and proud stood reaching for the crying heavens one after another, each one of them larger than the one before, or with a more vivid garden, or a prettier banner; all Rose could see, was peacocks. Great big stone peacocks spreading their colors in an attempt to outdo their neighbor. The aqueducts were even more frequent here, long bridges leading streams of water up and down and sideways to interconnect the entire place in a web of stone and rain. Some flowed into small ponds in the gardens of the manors all around her, while others flowed directly in through a window, supplying the place with fresh water for the maids to clean the clothes of the lords and ladies.

These, she saw a few of too. Very few, though, since most of them stayed indoors to be free of the rain. But those she saw stood outside in their front gardens, old women in gaudy, vibrant dresses that made them look almost exactly like the flower petals they were surrounded by. There was a lonesome lord as well, sitting on a bench outside, reading a book while his servant held an umbrella over his smoothly combed head. As Rose walked by, she met eyes with the servant; she was a young Myaani, her ragged clothing a stark contrast to the impeccably dressed lord by her side, and Rose saw the strange forlorn look in her eyes. Her ears hung low as if the rain had burdened them, but she knew it was not rain that tore this poor girl down. Rose couldn't quite put her finger on it, but there was something disturbing in seeing how sad that Myaani was, while her lord sat there and twirled his mustache, chuckling over the comedy in the book he read. But Rose could clearly see that while he was enjoying his comedy, his servant was a tragedy written with the ink of oppression on pages of racial prejudice and segregation.

“You mustn't look too long, Rose.” Ramund's voice came rather suddenly, Rose having almost forgotten completely about the old Mjaln for a moment there, her attention torn from the servant girl as they walked around a corner “This is simply their society; this is how it is, in the Moonby Sanctuary. You may spite it all you wish, but if I were you, I would save my efforts. This is one thing that will not change.”

Rose looked over her shoulder, but the servant girl was gone. She walked up beside Ramund, hands in her pockets and eyes in the trickling waters by her feet “I don't mind. I've never claimed that life is fair, that all are equal, that fate treats every man and woman to as much grief as pleasure. Things like these get easier to deal with, when you shed that childish... delusion. It's simply a matter of drawing pleasure from the smaller things, when you don't have everything. Those who live in a world of darkness, will find solace in even the smallest candle.” she said, and the more she spoke, the more this place seemed to remind her of the days she spent in her own darkness, locked away in a cell, never to see sunlight, never to know what freedom felt like. But thinking back on that girl she just passed, she saw that her fate really wasn't all that different. She had wondered why it rained so much, in this place. But now, no longer.

Only a few minutes of walking through this audacious district made her hate it already. She cast glances in through the windows and saw hard-working men rubbing clean the glass while the lords behind it sat back and enjoyed their birthright and a glass of wine that they had teenage maids to fill up. Sometimes she wondered where humanity had gone so wrong. Tear each and every one of these up by the stomach and she knew she would find the same guts, the same heart, the same bones-—there was nothing that truly made these velvet-clad rats any different from the slaves that they surrounded themselves with. But somewhere along the line, humanity had deemed that this was how things were going to be. And Rose knew perfectly well that it wasn't going to change, just as Ramund said. She only hoped that once hell stood banging at their gates, they would look to each other and realize that the demons would tell no difference between men in silks and men in rags.

But before long, Ramund came to a stop before one manor in particular. There was a look in his eye that he did not doubt where he was, and as Rose looked upon the manor herself, she quickly understood why. She did not know much about the Krov, and even less about these 'Zakadievs', but she could tell that this manor stood out like a wolf amongst a flock of the aforementioned peacocks. Where the other buildings seemed to embrace color in their gardens and bright, glorious banners, the Zakadievs had other thoughts in mind. Several jagged spires stood like blackened spearheads from the ground, dark granite slashed with blood red banners hanging from the walls. The rain clattered upon tall, gothic windows with curtains drawn, but Rose could see curious eyes peeking through the cracks, all the way up there. Gargoyles sat perched upon the garden pillars that bound the dark steel fence together, encasing this bleak building from where snake-emblazoned banners cried out the name 'Zakadiev'. She looked to Ramund, and Ramund looked back at her with eyes that, in all honesty, were not quite certain what they were heading into.

“This seems... stupid.” Rose commented as she turned her gaze back at the towering manor, the crude spires, the garden of plain grass and strange marble statues. She noticed that most of these had some kind of depiction of snakes in them; one was a Krov woman with snakes coiling around her outspread arms, and another was a giant serpent with water spilling from its yawning maw.

Ramund sighed and approached the fence gates, shaking his head, his thoroughly soaked beard swaying as he did “Stupid does not matter, when it is the right thing to do. I can scarcely imagine what pain one must endure, to lose their child... these people deserve to know that their son is safe and sound.”

Rose kept close to Ramund as he pushed open the gates, the hinges screaming for oil “I heard something about that.” Rose commented, hands in her pockets, eyes meeting the empty stare of a serpent statue “This... kidnapping. Or whatever it is. I suppose I should've asked earlier, but I didn't think you'd travel all this way just for me anyway. You've got more important things to care for, I understand.” she didn't even try to avoid the puddles on the ground any longer, the rain having drenched her through and through already “Makes you wonder how far you'll go for what's right, doesn't it?” she asked, a curious looked turned on the big man as they wandered down the stony path that slithered through the Zakadiev gardens, ended only by the front door of the manor.

Ramund turned an almost equally curious look on Rose “And what is that meant to say, dare I ask?”

To this, Rose smiled “Exactly what it sounds like, Ramund. I just hope-—should it get to that-—that you will treasure your sense of right and wrong, when they brand us kidnappers and slice open our throats.”

Ramund's nose wrinkled slightly, his eyes turned back on the door before them “Should it get to that.” he echoed, so stalwart in his belief that these people would never do such a thing. But Rose could taste his doubt. She could taste it like she could taste the rain slipping through her lips.

The door that stood at the front of the daunting Zakadiev manor seemed mostly like a thick, black wall of wood that just happened to be cut in two and adorned with handles and a hatch. Rose wondered why these Krov were so obsessed with all things serpentine, as she saw how the door too was littered in intricate carvings of snakes entwined in love on one side, and wrought in fierce strife on the other. Even the knocker of the door was a gilded snake's head-—one which Ramund only hesitated slightly to grab, before giving the door three hard knocks.

Rose twiddled her fingers idly as she stood there in the rain, an odd contrast of size to Ramund's enormity, he the kin of mountains and a child of blizzards, and she but a petite human—-looking at the door and Ramund, she knew that he was going to have some troubles squeezing his way through it. Assuming that they would be allowed inside, of course.

Suddenly, the hatch flew open. A pair of eyes, deep hazel and pretty, stared out at them. They were human, from what Rose could tell-—she hadn't seen it for herself, but she had heard that the Krov were supposed to have the eyes of cat, their pupils vertical and keen.

“And you are...?” the owner of the eyes asked, a woman by the sound of it, her stare moving curiously between Rose and Ramund. Rose kept quiet, and let Ramund do the talking.

“Allies.” Ramund answered shortly, a head bowed slightly in greeting and a large hand turned to present himself and Rose “We would request an audience with the lord of the house. It is an utmost private matter.”

The woman huffed slightly “I'm afraid not. His lordship Vyacheslav is not entertaining visitors these days.”

The polite smile that Ramund had donned seemed to diminish “No? Pardon me, madam, but no matter how busy his lordship may be, this is something that he would very much like to hear.”

“Then I am certain he will contact you in due time. Good day.” the hatch quickly slammed shut, and Rose could hear footsteps leaving from behind the door. In a rush of swift thought, she raised her voice.

“It's about his son!” she called out, hoping that her words could penetrate the thickness of the door. She heard how the footsteps came to a halt, leaving them in a painful silence of anticipation. For uncomfortably long, there was nothing, and Rose began to think that the woman behind hadn't heard her—-or simply chosen to ignore her. But that was when the hatch flew open again.

“I hope for your own sake that it is important.” the woman said as her eyes peered out the hatch once more, full of impatience and disdain “The entire house is in no mood for wasting time. Bear in mind, once you step in this door, you will be leaving behind the laws of the city, and accepting the laws that his lordship Vyacheslav has decreed. Is that understood?”

Rose turned a look up at Ramund, and saw the slight concern in the old Mjaln's eyes. It was clear to see that while he might have been wiser than most, even he was uncertain about what these Krov laws dictated. Still, these were uncertain times, and uncertain times often resulted in uncertain decisions. This was one of them.

“It is.” Ramund said, and gave a nod.

“Good.” the hatch slammed shut again. A series of metallic clicks and clamor was heard, as locks innumerable were being undone. As the last key was turned, the door creaked and groaned like an ancient oak bending in a hurricane, and Rose straightened up as the way inside opened up.

“I have been strictly forbidden any opening of this door, so if you've only come to share your condolences for Matvey, you had best turn around now.” the woman on the other side of the door was a tall one, dressed in a servant's gown of loose cotton and an apron wrought in red and black, the colors of the house in which she served. Her hair was bundled up and tied together with leather, and Rose noticed how her fingers were tough of skin, and her arms rather strong. It was clear that she was no stranger to physical labor.

“Young Matvey will not need any condolences.” Ramund put on his grandfatherly smile again as he stepped inside, closely followed by Rose. Rose had to resist the urge of shaking like a dog to get all the rain off of her, and simply stood there in the entrance room, dripping like a strung-up wet towel. Which was a pity, since these floors deserved much better than that, she noticed. Even though this was but the small entrance room, Rose could smell the wealth more than she could see it; even with beautiful coats and exotic fur littering the walls and filling up closets, the smell of varnished mahogany instantly told anyone who entered, that they had stepped inside a house of riches and plenty. Ramund and Rose had no coats to hang, but even if they did, Rose wouldn't feel particularly comfortable hanging hers by the side of coats so long they scraped the ankles of those wearing them, and with fur collars from foxes, wolves, and several creatures that she couldn't even identify.

“There are those who would disagree with you, Mjaln.” the servant woman droned as she moved about the small entrance room, taking her place by the farthest door, her hand already on the knob “I don't like to hope for anything, but I am sure his lordship would be pleased if you could convince him that condolences aren't necessary.”

“For a father wrought in grief and worry, that may be no easy task.” Rose followed in Ramund's shadow as he stepped forward, his voice turned to a pleasant low almost as soon as he squeezed his way through that door “But that should not keep us from trying. Shall it now, Rose?”

“Hm? Oh, right, uhm... no, of course not.” Rose quickly shook her head, though the words she spoke were little but half-thought noises, clearly not having been listening all that much-—and judging by the look on Ramund's face, he knew that perfectly well. She also noticed some odd sense of discretion in his eyes, some secrecy written on the little smile he gave her. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that he hadn't mentioned to the servant where poor little Matvey was... maybe this Mjaln was craftier than she had thought.

“If you've got no coats to hang, then let's waste no more time. I'll endure a little sluggishness from guests like you, but when you speak with Vyacheslav, speak plainly, clearly, and then get out. His lordship is known for many things, but patience is not one of them. Do I have to repeat that? No? Good. Then let's go.” despite her words, the servant woman didn't seem a particularly patient individual either, Rose noticed. Ramund only got to nod, before she opened up the door.

The light of three great chandeliers tumbled in through the open door, revealing the great hall of Zakadiev beyond. With a ceiling as tall as a church and with candles innumerable to light it all up, it was more than just a bit of a daunting sight, Rose thought. As if the strong whiff of mahogany wasn't enough, now most of her other senses were being yelled at, told oh so clearly that these halls belonged to men who were greater than you, richer than you, smarter than you. Ramund led the way, and she followed, her hands in her pockets and her eyes upon the utter cornucopia of books. There were so many books. In this massive hall, every wall was a bookshelf so tall that ladders had to be set up for readers to even make out the titles of books placed so high. Shadows danced like devils amongst all the light, all three chandeliers adorned with small serpentine figurines, so that the shadows they cast unto the walls seemed like great, mythical wyrms. Huge carpets of red and black washed over the mahogany floors and made them comfortably soft to walk on; Rose noticed how these carpets flew the emblem of Zakadiev as well, as if the rest of this manor did not scream that name loud enough already.

There was furniture scattered here and there, some collected around small tea tables, others before either of the two hearths that cast their fiery glow and spiced the air with a scent of charcoal. Stepping into this hall of obscene wealth, Rose noticed a few more servant women refilling tea-cups and maids brushing mahogany corners with little more than a single feather in their hands—-but amidst the servants, maids, and the occasional butler, she could spot only a single nobleman. He was a rather young fellow, perhaps somewhere in his late teens, sitting before one of the hearths with the firelight on his pale cheeks and a book in his lap. His horns weren't particularly sizable, only curving around his ears half-way, as ram-like horns now did, and the half-naked tail that stuck out from underneath his legs was lanky and small. She was tempted to approach him and look him straight in the eye, just to see if the tales were true.

However, her attention was caught by something else, as she followed Ramund in a line down the carpeted floors, headed straight for a large staircase that split in two like a serpent's tongue. There were several doors where the bookshelves allowed it, and from them she could hear shouting, like a cook barking orders to his apprentices-—yet over that shouting, she could hear the distinct sound of an instrument. A violin. She couldn't locate the music, yet there was something about it that put her in an unearthly muse, as if the sweet tunes swept her away on a river of symphonic harmony. Her legs felt strangely empty and light, the thoughts in her head washed away to make space for the haunting, captivating serenade. She had never heard anything like it, and she couldn't stop focusing on it, as if it somehow quieted everything else, just so the world could shut up and listen to its song.

“He's good, isn't he?” Rose snapped her attention toward the servant woman who followed her and Ramund up the splitting staircase—-she hadn't even noticed her until now. Only now did she know what a smile looked like on her face “Newcomers always have that very same look on their faces, the first time they hear Vyacheslav's violin. No one quite knows how he does it, whether it is some Krov craftsmanship of the instrument, or magic. But whatever the reason, it never fails to enthrall. You were pretty enthralled just there, weren't you?”

Rose's cheeks flared slightly, uncertain about what had just happened “I... uhh...”

“I will not hesitate to admit that I was.” Ramund said, followed by an amused chuckle “Curious. Very curious, indeed. Is the lord magically adept at all, dare I ask?”

As they reached the top of the staircase, now given an excellent view over the proud hall below, the Zakadiev emblem on the floors now clear in its serpentine glory, the servant woman couldn't help but smirk “You can ask all you want, but I'm afraid I can't give you a satisfying answer. No one really can. If he knows magic, then he hides it quite well. If he doesn't... well, then I suppose he's just really good at playing the violin, isn't he?” she snickered slightly, some odd jest in her eyes “You can go ask him yourself, if you want. Just follow the music.” she said, and gestured down a long hallway on her left.

“Perhaps we shall.” Ramund cast a look down the hallway, seeing it delve deep into the mahogany walls of the manor, and as Rose did the same, she got the distinct feeling that this place was much larger than it seemed on the outside. The violin kept playing and her attention never ceased to return to it, the gentle tunes like whispers luring her, seducing her. She hardly even noticed as Ramund sauntered for the hallway, and with a curious look from the servant woman, she quickly caught up to the old Mjaln, and acted as if she had never lost focus anyway.

There was something strangely haunting about this place, and she really couldn't tell if Ramund noticed. Wasn't he the magically inclined one? Wasn't he supposed to have a finer sense for these kinds of things, or had age dulled that too? The hallway that they walked down turned and swayed now and then, and there were portraits of other Krov nobles on either side of this red-carpeted corridor, setting her and Ramund on a journey through the life and times of this strange, enigmatic house. There was the occasional door on her left or on her right, but her attention fell on the portraits... because the portraits' attention always fell on her. Walking past them, she could feel eerie stares upon her, much like the times where the elf in the top hat showed up to taunt her, torture her. It was deeply unsettling, and every time she turned to stare back at the portraits, she could swear on seeing them quickly look away. And looking to Ramund, it was as if she was the only one noticing this. Paranoia and fear began to creep up the back of her neck and dig into her head, the hairs on her arms rising and unearthly chills coursing through her veins. She saw now those feline, yellow glares of the Krov, but she would so dearly have wished to see it another way than this. And they never stopped looking. Like hungry vultures they stared, and all she could do to keep herself from screaming out and tearing the portraits straight from their frames was clench her teeth, keep walking, and focus on the snaking corridor that lead them... somewhere. She wasn't particularly religious, but she had to whisper a quiet prayer of thanks when Ramund finally came to a stop before one of the doors, and muttered quietly: “We're here.”

And true enough, she could hear it too. The violin was clearest here, its coaxing song coming from right behind this beautiful door engulfed in the black and red colors of the house and emblazoned in the very same emblem that she had seen so many times now. Rose could still feel the eyes upon her, and she was practically dancing on her toes in anxious impatience. The violin had played all this time, and her attention was ripped in half between it and the haunting, staring eyes of long-dead Zakadiev nobles, lords and ladies alike. It was as if the violin was driving her insane, and the eyes were a result of it. Or... was the insanity there already, regardless of the violin, and was she tasting its bitter fruit now? She dreaded the thought, and quickly shook it out of her head, horrified that a certain top-hatted elf might step out of the shadows and laugh at her. It was only when Ramund knocked three hard times on the door, that the violin stifled its song.

An unnerving silence followed. Ramund and her stood side by side, their folded hands hanging by their laps in almost the exact same way as they waited. And they continued to wait for uncomfortably long, but Ramund had no idea of what pain she was going through right now, still feeling the haunting eyes glare through her flesh and right into her most intimate self. It was as if she could feel their cold breaths on her neck already, and soon the fangs would come and plunge themselves through her soft skin. She was no stranger to vampires, many of her fellow inmates in the asylum having fangs like those, but there was something about these Krov that put ungodly frost in her heart. It was with that thought in mind, that the door opened up.

“Hm. I don't recall hiring a new pair of servants... and certainly not a Mjaln.” the man that opened up, was far taller than Rose had anticipated. Although not as tall as Ramund, he was much taller than her, and the proud horns on his head gave him a few extra inches too. Curling twice around his ears and adorned with golden rings and a pair of tiny silver bells dangling from their tips, this pair of horns was certainly the most audacious one she had seen in her entire life—probably because that most other horns like these she had seen, belonged to sheep and goats.

“Nor had I expected you to, your lordship.” Ramund answered, smiling, offering a gracious bow of his head to the Krov lord “We know of the dire times your house is undergoing, but we believe to have the most effective remedies of all, when it comes to anguish like yours. May we come in?”

A skeptical look conquered the expression of the Krov lord. His face was as if carved from stone by the chisel of the finest artist, not a single wrinkle to be found, despite that he was no young Krov at all. His lips were stiff and stern, a perpetual sneer curled on them and the points of his vicious pair of fangs stuck out to remind those before him that he was the predator, and they were prey. But most curious of all, Rose found, was his beard. The two great men that now stood before one another seemed interlocked in a battle of beards; Ramund with his glorious avalanche of a beard hanging from his face and studded with rune-littered steel to keep it all in place, and Vyacheslav with not one, but three beards. From his chin and from where his jaw met his neck, three ponytails hung, wrapped and bound in blood-red silk and decorated with small bone charms, perhaps something cultural within the Krov society.

“Others have come to claim the very same; alchemists and clairvoyants and priests... none have succeeded, and none have left with their fingers left on their hands. What makes the two of you so... special?” he turned his stare on Rose briefly, and in it, she saw a piercing dominance that made her heart stand still for a second or two. In those vertical pupils, she felt a strength that went far beyond mind or muscle, and gripped around her very being, all in just one stare. For a moment, she forgot all about the glares of the portraits behind her, each and every one of them quieted by these oppressing eyes. She had heard how the Krov were known for claiming themselves superior to all, and when she met stares with Vyacheslav, she was beginning to see why.

“Because alchemists will feed you potions and declare your worries gone; because clairvoyants will whisper sweet lies in your ears and tell you that all will be well; because to find solace in the words of a priest, you must too believe in our gods.” Ramund said, sounding no less confident than before “And from what I recall, your kind do not share our faith in gods and heavens. You might not even share our laws and convictions, but no matter how different we may be, what news I bring you, is good news, and will give you no reason to worry.”

To this, Vyacheslav smirked. His left fang stuck out a little further as he looked up at the great man before him. He leaned on the door frame, arms folded and his oddly claw-like fingers running through the front ponytail of his curious facial hair. Rose noticed that despite the eccentric beard of his, his hair was strangely regular; short, well-combed and deep brown, it carried no odd adornments or style, his horns and his beard seeming to have enough of that already. His outfit, however, boasted as much glory as the rest of him; a long coat of black and red velvet spun with silver thread hung far down his tall figure, scraping at his knees and swaying at his every move. It coiled and writhed as Vyacheslav switched on his feet, but Rose caught some odd glances of what seemed like a story woven into the cloth, like looking upon an ancient temple wall and seeing what transpired in days long past. And in under it, was his tail. While the Krov son that Rose saw just a few minutes ago had but a little tuft on the end of it, Vyacheslav's tail was engulfed in fur that was dyed black and red as well.

“What a delightfully unrealistic claim, stranger.” Vyacheslav's words were poison, and Rose felt nauseous already. He stepped back and pushed open the door, gracefully motioning for her and Ramund to follow him “But I do love a bit of fiction now and then, so please, amuse me. If your fiction is as good as it sounds, maybe I shall even let you keep your tongue. I can appreciate a talented storyteller... but I have no patience for liars.”

“You will find that we are neither.” Ramund declared shortly and frankly, clearly not too amused by Vyacheslav's word games, but he knew better than to say it outright. As Vyacheslav turned on his heel, his vividly dyed tail swaying in his wake, Ramund leaned down to Rose and lowered his voice.

“Be on your guard, Rose. Krov do not have the same understanding of right and wrong as us... if this lord finds it in his heart to flay us and set our heads on pikes because it amuses him, I have no doubt that he will do exactly that. And as long as it takes place within these walls, there will come no guards to tell him wrong.”

Rose looked back up at Ramund, and gave him but a mirthful smile “I like him already. Shall we?” for a moment, Rose saw disgust in the eyes of Ramund... and she enjoyed it. Confident in her step, she followed after Vyacheslav, never mind the danger that walking into the lion's den seemed to pose.

As Ramund closed the door behind her, she shut her eyes for a moment and took a breath of relief from the eyes of the portraits being cut off so instantly. Much to her pleasant surprise, Vyacheslav didn't have any of them in this room of his. Carpets and tapestries on the walls and floors flew the emblem of his house, but it seemed that he had no love for his ancestors, as the only portrait in here was a small framed family picture on the stone hearth in the back of the room. Glimmering in the flickering firelight, it showed the entirety of the Zakadiev house, and Rose saw that it was as Theodor said: not that grand at all. One wife, one daughter, and two sons were the only ones that accompanied Vyacheslav in this small framed portrait, and Rose assumed that one of those sons had to be the kidnapped child that she had heard of; the other son she had seen in the hall, after all.

“My time is short and my patience shorter, so spare me the formalities, dear guests.” Vyacheslav droned as he slouched into the cushioned chair by his desk, on which his violin lay. He turned around on the chair and entwined his fingers, the bells on his horns jingling ever so slightly as he cocked his head.

“If you've come to speak to me about my son, then know that it is a subject very dear to me, and I will endure no... trivialities.” he spoke that word with odd spite, his serpentine tongue peeking out from his crude lips briefly “Do I have to show you the lock box in which I keep the tongues of those who have wasted my time, hm?” his fangs peeked forth in a brief flash of vice and violence.

The room was wrought in darkness, the corners full of shadow so dense that Rose felt as if she could see eyes lurking within, peering at these curious new guests-—and considering the owner of the room, she would hardly be surprised. The hearth cast a warm glow over the room, complimented by a single candle on Vyacheslav's desk, but where the light could not reach, darkness coiled.

“That... will not be necessary, your lordship.” Rose could hear that Ramund was trying his best to remain polite in spite of Vyacheslav's threats, but his frustration was bleeding through like rain through a . He and Rose found themselves seats too, pulling up a few nearby chairs to face the Zakadiev lord, looking him straight in those assertive eyes of feline grace and sleight. As Ramund spoke, the crack of burning logs in the hearth and the clatter of rain on a nearby window followed his words

“I apologize for the vagueness, your lordship, but I had to be certain no unwelcome ears heard this.” Ramund continued, his fingers entwined, caution clear in his eyes and in his voice “My name is Ramund Bjornsson, and this is Rosalyn. We represent the Dawn rebellion, of which I am certain you have heard. And... we have your son.”

Rose wasn't quite certain what happened as he said that—-it all happened so fast. A flash of wrath in Vyacheslav's eyes, his chair suddenly flung half-way across the room, a blade that she hadn't even seen, appearing out of nowhere as Vyacheslav bounded to his feet. Ramund was just as surprised at the sheer haste of the Zakadiev lord, and before he even realized what he had said, the edge of a jagged sword was poised at his neck. Vyacheslav's fangs were fully bared now, his lips pulled back in a snarl that belonged to monsters, not men.

“You convince my servants to let you inside, you play me with your politeness, and now you have the nerve to speak such filth?!” Vyacheslav spat the words and Rose instinctively rushed to her feet as well, leaving Ramund stuck there on the chair, locked by a sword wrought in firelight, practically kissing Ramund's throat already “Do you work for him? Anton Cercy-—do you work for him?!”

“Stay your blade, Vyacheslav!” Ramund shouted right back at the Krov lord, baring his own teeth, despite that he couldn't display such a vicious maw as Vyacheslav “I am not here to ask for ransom—-were I, I would know better than to wander in where you could slash me to scattered limbs and go unpunished.”

“It's true.” Rose wasn't quite sure why she intervened, but in a rush of quick thought, she stepped in between Vyacheslav and Ramund, staring him dead in the eyes. Vyacheslav didn't seem to have noticed her all that much at all while she was sitting there, and only now seemed to acknowledge her presence; and he did so by slipping the blade to her neck instead. She took in a sharp breath as she felt the barbed steel on her skin, a rush of cold chilling her veins, but amidst the dread, there was an odd excitement in it too. And that was what kept her from crumbling under the oppressive stare of the Krov lord.

“So you say.” Vyacheslav spoke the words through gritted teeth, his serpentine tongue running up and down his fangs, wetting them, preparing them “I could strike your head from your shoulders and intoxicate myself in whatever blood doesn't land on the floor, little girl. I only need one of you to tell me where my son is. Please. Convince me... not to.”

Rose saw how Vyacheslav was drowned in shadow all of a sudden, as Ramund stood to his feet as well “Stop this madness! There is no need for this. Rose, your help is appreciated, but,” she felt his heavy hand on her shoulder “This is nothing more than a misunderstanding. Your lordship, listen... we have your son, because we found him in a cave, many hours from the Sanctuary. We are here to help.”

Rose suddenly regretted standing between these two giants, one physical and one political, and though she did not dare to turn her head in fear of having her throat opened up, she could feel the tension of the stares between Ramund and Vyacheslav. Silence followed as Vyacheslav stood there with his sword still lingering on her neck, his tail raised threateningly and his eyes full of wrath. It was many painful seconds that had to pass, before Vyacheslav lowered his sword, and Rose could breathe freely.

“I suppose my actions speak louder than my words, when I say that I am... on edge.” he turned his back on his guests as he wandered back to his candlelit desk, dumping tiredly into the chair, fingers tapping impatiently on the armrests. The tension hung in the air like a bad smell, but at least there was some sense of calm, now that blades had been sheathed and seats had been taken. Rose rubbed her neck where the blade had kissed, and counted it as a blessing that it was still intact.

Vyacheslav turned on his chair, his chiseled face and vicious glare again set on his guests, words spilling through half-bared teeth “You'll have to excuse my rashness, but I am certain you could understand why I would want to tear the heads off those who claim to hold my son—-and when you step into my very home and claim that very thing, such consequences are to be... expected.” there was not a shred of apology in his words, every vowel sharpened to a deadly keen upon the whetstone of hatred “Now then, Ramund Bjornsson. Rosalyn. You tell me that you have my son-—safe and sound, I should hope-—and that you are here to help, yet still my house weeps in his absence. Why?” his long nails clicked like claws upon the wood of his armrests, and Rose could tell that he was exactly as patient as word said that he was.

Ramund took in a long breath as he sat back in his chair as much as his weight would allow, hands folded on his half-armored stomach “A mere precaution, your lordship.” he began “Word travels swiftly, and if we simply brought him to you immediately, chances are that his kidnappers would simply take him right back... or worse. It is for your sake—-and for your son's-—that we keep him where he is safe, for the time being.”

“In the hands of rebel fools and stranger men?” Vyacheslav sneered, a feral growl from the depths of his throat pushing through his barbed teeth “You try my patience, Mjaln. Know that you will find it... lacking.” the vertical slits of his piercing eyes seemed to narrow. Rose met stares with him again as he looked between them with venomous disdain, his nose wrinkled and half of his face drenched in shadow under the glow of the hearth.

“You seem new to this realm. So please, allow me to educate you a little about us Krov. There are many things in life that we hate, and there are many things that we appreciate, but in all of life, there is nothing that matches our love for family. Many years ago, in distant lands far beyond the Western Waters, the Krov were many. Live was rich. We flourished.” he stood to his feet, and for a moment, sounded oddly reminiscent. His chin was raised slightly, bells of his horns jingling as he moved to stand before he hearth. His long shadow splattered unto the wall, and his face was turned to a silhouette as he looked back at his guests.

“But then the Bloodbile struck.” he turned to face them in his entirety, his elegant coat swaying as he spun on his heels “As you may or may not know, our strength lies in our blood, the sacred fluid that courses through our veins, and that which  all Krov society revolves around. But the Bloodbile turned that strength against us. We were decimated, reduced to a fraction of what we once were, and faced with near-certain extinction. And were it not for Alexei Advonovich, the greatest scientist mage to ever draw breath, we may quite possibly never have made it this far, to have this conversation. With extinction being a very real threat, Advonovich tried one last attempt at salvation: fusing our blood with the essence of a wraith, the spawn of the dark god of madness, Belin. I take it you are both well aware of what that means?” he asked, an inquisitive stare moving between Rose and Ramund.

Neither of them answered, but it was clear that there was no question about it. Rose knew them all too well, these wraiths. The specters born from endless night, apparitions that somehow bled into this world, haunting the woods of her home and possessing the unwary traveler. Oh how she remembered it all so clearly. It was never the possession itself that was the horrid thing—-that usually didn't include more than seizures and unconsciousness—-but what came afterwards, was. Even with such a shattered memory, she could easily recall seeing more than a few of her friends grow fur, claws, and howl at the moon—-or grow fangs and suddenly desire nothing else in this world than the warm taste of blood. And insanity never failed to follow. She could not remember how many times she had checked her own teeth, all because things would make so much more sense, if only she was a vampire. She looked at Vyacheslav's fangs, and felt strange envy. If she had a pair of her own, at least she would know why they called her that. Why they had labeled her that. 'Insane'.

“It was on that fateful day that all Krov faced either salvation or destruction—-and whether we were destroyed by the dark god's spawn or by the Bloodbile, it did not seem to matter. But as fortune would have it, the ritual succeeded. There were those who did not make it, but those who did, were given the strength to annihilate the Bloodbile forever.” he pulled back his lips in a beastly snarl, baring his fangs and giving one of them a tap of his claw-like nail “But this is the price we paid for survival. Every time we feel the urge, we are reminded of the day that all of our kind were nearly wiped clean from the world of the living. It is in this urge, that we learn to appreciate our fellow kind while they yet draw breath. Now... now do you see why our offspring and our family means so much to us? In Krov society, every life is sacred; every child is a gift upon us, born with the sole purpose of extending the existence of our race for another lifetime. Have you any common sense at all, you'll see now that it is more than a father's love that feeds me this hatred for those who took my son... and the reason that I nearly took your heads as well. So please, pardon me if I am not too pleased with a fraction of my kind's future being held in the claws of a rebel circus like your own.”

There was a silence, as Vyacheslav took his seat again. The chair creaked under his weight as he sat into the soft satin cushions, his stiff lips closed and his keen eyes once again wrought in spite, rather than reminiscence. Ramund sat quiet in his chair as well, his tongue moving across his lips once in a while, words stuck in his throat. Rose looked between the two as she sat there, comfortably out of the conversation zone, a mere spectator in this battle of wills. And it seemed like Vyacheslav was winning, much to her surprise.

“I...” Ramund swallowed, and nodded once “I understand. Believe or do not, I truly do understand. I am a father myself, if that should aid the legitimacy of my words. A young daughter of mine, sweet little girl whom I have not heard the voice of in so long, naught but a memory ever since I left the mountains. Yet still, in my heart and in my dreams, I can still hear her sing.” Rose looked upon Ramund as he spoke, and noticed something. While speaking, his large hand moved to his pocket, as if checking for something. Curiosity grew within her, as questions began to appear. What was in that pocket?

“And to know that she had been taken, would too induce wrath unlike any other in me.” he continued, eyes still on Vyacheslav, who seemed as sombre and solemn as always “I do not blame you, your lordship. I could never. I simply fear that bringing your son here would put him in thrice-fold the danger he is in now. He is being cared for, kept warm and dry... but if you insist, then I am no man to deny you your son.”

“That... would be appreciated.” Vyacheslav continued, chin raised and horns gleaming in the light of the candles and hearth “If you are the father you claim to be, then I am certain you too would be uncomfortable with the thought of your daughter being stuck in the hands of strangers and troublemakers. Because, when you think about it, that is exactly what you are, rebel. Your little entourage are strangers to this land, and with you, you bring nothing but strife. I am not about to let my son be a part of that.”

“I'm afraid he already is.” Rose intervened, rather suddenly, rather spontaneously, but she couldn't help a little smile “As are you. As are the rest of us. As are all the little wormy peasants on the streets searching your trash for scraps of food, just to survive another day while you gorge yourself on fresh-slaughtered piglets and exotic fruit that famished hands put on your table.”

“Rose!” Ramund interrupted her, just as she had expected “That's about enough!”

“No, Ramund.” Rose turned her stare on him, looking him dead in the eye “I don't think it is. I don't think it will ever be.” this time, she felt no reluctance, as she bounded to her feet and looked straight down at Vyacheslav “Do you know what is coming for you, little lord? Hm? Do you know what lurks on the other side of the mist, impatiently waiting for their chance to bring down these walls and massacre every man, every woman, every child and every dog in these streets?” She approached Vyacheslav, who was staring right back at her, seeming more and more infuriated at her audacity. But she felt no fear, no hesitation, and her madness was shining brightly in the disgusted stare she set on Vyacheslav.

“When they come,” she continued, her voice shivering and spoken through gritted teeth “When they come for you, there will be no distinction. There will be no prisoners. They will not be so merciful as to simply kidnap your son, your wife, your daughter; every last one of you will be worth as much as the lowliest beggar on the streets. When they come.” she leaned in close, close enough to bite, even though Vyacheslav was the one with the fangs “When they come, it won't matter who kept your boy safe. Ever since they set their bloodshot eyes on Moonby, this city turned from a sanctuary, to a hunting ground. And in mere days, it will open season for peasant and noble alike.” her eyelid twitched, and on her lips, a crazed smile took shape “Your time is short, so I'd suggest you cut the bullshit, and make a decision. Ramund can sweet-talk you all he wants, but I'll be the one to spill the beans: we've got your son, and we want your help as ransom.”

“Your lordship, I must apologize!” Ramund stood to his feet as well, his hand heavy on Rose's shoulder “She doesn't know what she is saying; we mean no such thing.”

“Fuck off, Ramund!” Rose howled, prying his hand from her shoulder and leaning in inch-close to Vyacheslav, cackling in between her words, her voice lowered to a haunting whisper “Once these walls fall—-and they will—-your pretty clothes and your titles will matter nothing; you'll be prey like the rest of us. The only thing that matters, little lord, is whose side you're on... when they come.”

When that was said, what happened afterward didn't really matter. She felt herself be torn away from Vyacheslav, and she saw him rise to his feet and snarl something through that fanged maw of his, but she couldn't hear it. The only thing she could hear, was her own frenzied guffaw. She laughed and laughed and laughed, treasuring every single moment of seeing that frantic look on the Krov lord's face. His stupid facade of superiority had made her sick for too long, and seeing it challenged like this, gave her such an intoxicating rush of ecstasy. How she loathed masks like these. He was mortal, just like the rest of them. And in the split second before she was hurled out the door, she saw that delicious look of dishonor in his eyes. Did he realize now that he was going to die like the rest of them, she wondered.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 4.5
In which we received a better look at the Krov, and the society around which they revolve. I've been quite excited to write this chapter, as the Krov are undoubtedly one of my favorite races within The Mortal Realm, simply because of the way they challenge mortal understanding of right and wrong, of morals, of ethics. In the eyes of Krov, it is survival of the fittest. And the Krov are, without a doubt, the fittest of them all.
This chapter is named 'Blood Red Velvet', and for it, I've been listening a lot to the darker stuff of Adrian Von Ziegler (if you don't know him, check him out - he's a genius!). This one in particular:…

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
But in lands far to the north, a quiet had settled over the world. There was something strange in the air; something that clogged the throats of the afternoon birds and quelled the winds to a curious silence. The city of Godshill that leaned upon the mountain side like a golden necklace of these ancient giants seemed so still this day. Lucius had been used to the constant background chatter of the people as they wandered by, lovers holding hands and merchants trying to advertize their goods louder than the man before—-but today, there was silence. He looked out the window and saw the mountains, the great rocky plains of the Eastern Valley, the sun. Again, there it was, that glorious thing on the sky. So majestic it was, loved by all, the entire world praising its return like a dog seeing its owner come home. It was strange how that the sun seemed to be the only thing in the world that everyone could agree on loving. Of course, Lucius couldn't help but love it as well... but he couldn't help but cringe at its audacity.

He looked down at his desk, his velvet--draped legs slung up on it, his black leather shoes gleaming in the light that pierced his window. There were crumbs lingering on a plate that once carried a lovely apple pie he had enjoyed for lunch, and there was all the paperwork that kept reminding him that his work was never done. However, in stark contrast, there was something else on the desk that told him that it would be—-and soon.

It was such a small thing, yet in comparison to most things in here, it was the greatest of them all. Although so small that it could fit in his palm like an egg, it was easily the most important thing he had laid eyes upon all day. This curious little vial, so full of inky black liquid, was what would give this city its salvation from political lethargy and sloth. Not an invading demon army; not a group of rising rebels; not even the sun! No, it was but a few droplets of this, and Godshill could once again exert the strength that made it was it was today. He held it pinched between his thumb and index finger, holding it forth to let the sun shine upon it, yet not a single ray could penetrate its blackness. He couldn't help but smile. What was that audacious sun now, in comparison to this?

There was a knock on the door. Lucius was torn from his admiration of the vial, quickly slipping it down his chest pocket as he turned his gaze to the door. He raised his voice.


And enter he did, Lucius' favorite servant. The door creaked slightly as Ferdinand the hunchback stepped inside, the old man draped in dark brown robes like a monk, his gaunt fingers holding a letter. His face was partially hidden underneath his hood, but his wrinkly lips stuck out, flapping as he spoke.

“My lord.” he said, those two words seeming to have become more routine than respect “I do hope I am not disturbing anything.”

“You are not.” Lucius replied calmly as he leaned back in his chair and put his golden hair into a ponytail “Nothing more than the usual paperwork, dear Ferdinand-—and as you know, that never ends. So this is as good a time as any. Now... what news do you have for me?” he asked, a glance tossed at the letter in Ferdinand's hands.

Some hushed muttering spilled from Ferdinand's lips as a bony finger trailed down the letter, looking for certain words in particular “Some quite concerning news I fear, my lord.” he said as he looked back at Lucius, yet his eyes never came to light, drowned away in the shadow cast by his hood “Your scouts in Moonby Sanctuary have reported to have seen two of the three whom you issued a manhunt for: Sergeant Ramund Bjornsson, and Rosalyn of Section 9.”

“Ah yes, the imposter cultists.” he grumbled, frowning slightly. He could see that Ferdinand did not quite buy that lie, but it didn't matter. Even if these three were indeed surviving veterans, Ferdinand was never going to question his authority. Ferdinand was too well-trained a dog for that.
“And what about the third?” he asked “Any reports on him?”

Ferdinand shook his head “I am afraid not, my lord. The scouts suspect that he may be part of the ongoing rebellion, and have begun to encroach on their camp. On your order, they will infiltrate to their best ability.”

“See it done.” Lucius ordered, a wave gesturing loosely “But tell them to be careful about it. I would rather not lose a pair of scouts simply to find out whether or not a cultist piglet is hiding away in a rebel nest.” he huffed. He noticed that all this about these three survivors seemed to bother him less and less every day. And as he slipped a hand to feel the vial in his pockets, he knew for certain why.

“If that was all, you may take your leave.” Lucius said, as his gaze drifted out the window.
“There is... one more thing, my lord.” Ferdinand continued, surprisingly. Lucius looked back at the hunchback, and saw how his lips seemed to squeeze together, clearly uncertain about what he was about to say. Lucius smiled softly, yet his eyes dictated a stalwart authority.

“Well then... go on. What's on your mind, old friend?”

Ferdinand took in a long breath “I would not want to bother my lord with such petty things, but it has caused some disarray within the people, and I felt it necessary to let you know.”

“Exactly as you should.” Lucius continued, his eyes unwavering from Ferdinand's shadow-drowned eyes “And now that you've voiced your concerns, let me hear what the actual word is.”

Ferdinand bobbed his head up and down a few times, a nod of sorts, though Lucius had never truly understood why Ferdinand did that “Of course, my lord, of course. It is a most peculiar rumor that has sown doubt in the people, I fear. It started as little but a whisper and a jape within taverns, but it has been growing swiftly. I know how laughable this sounds, but the people speak of the coming of a new god.”

Lucius' attention suddenly piqued “A new god? But that's ridiculous. The heavens don't work that way.”

“I am well aware, my lord.” he did a few more bobs of his head “But regardless, the people are terribly unnerved and concerned about this strange rumor. Word is that a young nun woke up in the middle of the night, claiming that this new god had spoken to her, and told her to spread the word of his arrival. By then, most saw it as little but a dream and brushed it away as such, but when one of the high priests dreamed of the very same, no one could be quite certain of anything.” he shook his head “It is all very concerning, my lord.”

Lucius sighed through his nose, and stroked his chin “Yes indeed... quite concerning. And what do they call this new so-called 'god', hm?”

Ferdinand swallowed, as the word spilled reluctantly from his lips “Omnos.” he spoke the name with grave hesitation “They call him Omnos, my lord.”

Much to Ferdinand's surprise, Lucius only laughed at this “Omnos, you say? How curious. Well, at least they named him something that rolls well on the tongue. I may have to speak with the high priest about this nonsense, and make certain it does not get out of hand. Even so, I'm certain that the people will see that it is all wind and rumors soon enough.”

“I should hope so, my lord.” Ferdinand seemed quite relieved at how Lucius took it, a twitchy smile beginning to take shape “That would be all, then. By your leave, my lord.”

“Yes yes, you may leave.” Lucius said, giving him a dismissive wave, his attention already fallen back on his paperwork. He did not look to see Ferdinand leave, the sound of his slippers shuffling and the closing of the door being enough for him to know that he didn't linger.

He looked out the window again, into the sunny world outside, and saw how things were beginning to liven up. His window gave him a wonderful view over the great city of Godshill, the royal estate having been placed so high on the mountain slopes that there was not a corner of the city that could not be seen from his office. The king had a balcony with a view over the rocky plains, the shaggy landscape where the earth seemed to churn in itself, but Lucius had a view of the city. Strange, he figured; for a king, perhaps it was better to keep an eye on the city in which he ruled, rather than the lands that surrounded it. If anything, that should have been the High Commander's window: a view out to the lands beyond, to where his soldiers fought valiantly, to lands over the horizon where he would plant his banner... or perhaps he was simply overthinking this. He had always been a proponent of metaphors and symbolism like this, but it seemed like the architects of the royal estate were not. A pity.

He turned his hazel stare on a pair of citizens, close by the gardens of the royal estate. They sat outside the steel fencing, on the porch of a white-walled house, enjoying a cigarette each. Even from up here, he recognized them. One was Mr. Lewin, the owner of the house, and the other was Mr. Hart, a friend of Lewin's. He liked to think that he knew most of the citizens of Godshill, but Godshill was a large place, and they were having children constantly. No one could expect him to know each and everyone by name. But these two, he knew. What were they talking about, he wondered. Were they talking about this new god as well? This 'Omnos'? Neither of them seemed particularly concerned about anything; they were laughing from time to time, enjoying a break from work, he assumed. But perhaps that was simply because they knew that this 'Omnos' was but a rumor, and nothing to be concerned about. Or so he hoped.

There was another knock on the door. Lucius turned towards it, curious “Did you forget something, Ferdinand?”

But it was not Ferdinand that answered the door. It creaked as it opened up ever so slightly, for a young girl to lean in and smile “My lord. The king bids you join him for tea.” she was carrying a tray full of pots and cups of porcelain, small bowls full of sugar, figs, and the finest herbs.

“Ah! Delightful!” Lucius mirrored the maid's smile, and stood to his feet. He straightened up his velvet outfit, and brushed a hand over the vial in his pocket while doing so. He felt his heart pound in his chest, but his expression revealed no nervousness. Adrenaline shot through his veins, but even so, his stroll was as calm and confident as ever.

“You can let me have the tray, dear. I'll take it to the king myself, thank you.” he gently took the tray, but to his surprise, the maid didn't let go.

“But... the king-—“

“—-Would like some privacy with me. Alone.” Lucius' voice was sweet and soft, but there was a steely force underneath that made it absolutely clear that there would be no declining him. The maid knew this for certain, her tongue stifled, words clogging in her throat under the rigid domination that was Lucius' stare. She knew better than to argue, and let go of the tray. Lucius smiled.

“Thank you, dear. You may leave.” and she did. Without a word, she turned around and scurried away, her leather shoes clacking on the floors and echoing in the halls outside of Lucius' office. And so did Lucius', as he took his leave for the king's quarters, alone.

The way to the king's office was a burden for Lucius. The time it took seemed much longer than it used to. His veins were alight with adrenaline, painful anticipation lodged deep into his chest like a barbed dagger. By the time he arrived at the staircase that would ascend him to Magnus' quarters, he felt an ever so slightly tingle of reluctance inside. Was this truly the right thing to do? Doubt made an attempt to put him on other thoughts, but he crushed it like the worm it was. This was definitely the right thing to do. He let out a long breath, and in it, he exhaled all his fears and doubts. Cool, collected determination took over, and put that steely expression back on his face. He cast a swift look behind him to see if he was followed, and he was glad to see that he wasn't. He put the tray down on the steps before him, and pulled out the small vial nestled in his chest pocket. He looked at it for strangely long. He had never felt respect for such a small thing before, but here, he had no choice. Carefully, he pulled the cork, and slipped but a few droplets into one of the porcelain cups. The inky black liquid coiled within the tea, squirming as if it was alive, but dissipated into nothing shortly after. But Lucius, while putting the vial back into his pocket, knew perfectly well that it was a lot more than nothing. In fact, right now, it was everything.

As he climbed the stairs, he found the door standing wide open, just like last time. The king was as gullible as he was drunk, Lucius found. Assassins could wander in unabated with a door that yawned open like this, no locks, no guards, no anything. Magnus was getting careless, the old fool.

“The balcony, Lucius.” Magnus' voice was raised over the soft moan of the mountain winds that flew by outside and animated the curtains. Lucius could hear that there was still some distaste lingering from last time they met, but seeing how Magnus was willing to invite him up here in the first place, perhaps he was in a better mood-—or so Lucius hoped.

He trod through the sleeping room, the cornucopia of fresh fruit and wine, more than even the king could hope to consume before a maid came and filled it right back up. On every desk, every table, every flat surface, there was either a bowl of grapes or wine drowned in ice cubes for the king's leisurely desires. The wall tapestries kept reminding everyone who passed through just how glorious the king and his ancestors were. Woven into the cloth were the stories of what every king had done, a new part added to it every time a new king was crowned. Lucius knew them all quite well... and frankly, by now, he had grown rather sick of them.

Lucius found the king seeming rather distant, as he stepped outside on the balcony to meet him. He sat there, slouched in his chair, his old and wrinkly fingers curled on his growing belly—but the way he looked out over the horizon made it seem as if he wasn't even there. The winds out here were gentle this noon, but cold as always, cooled down as they passed over the icy peaks of the adjacent mountains—fortunately, the king had been smart enough to dress in warmer clothes of colorful wool. Lucius said nothing as he sat down next to the king, putting the tray on the small table between them. Several seconds passed where neither of them said anything, Lucius simply sitting there and looking between the mountains in the distance and Magnus' white strands of hair that wafted in wake of the soft winds. He knew better than to speak first. The king would not have invited him up here if he had nothing to say—-it was all just a question of when he intended to say it. But the tea was only getting colder.

“I've had some time to think, Lucius.” Magnus said, spoken in High Speech, though he didn't turn to look at Lucius “Maybe I overreacted, last we met.”

Lucius took his own cup of tea and cradled it in his hands, feeling its warmth radiate into his fingers. He cast a sideways look at the king, and raised his eyebrows “Oh? And what makes you think so, my king?”

Magnus shoulders raised in a slight shrug “Time, I suppose. Time made me think so. You were right, Lucius... I'm not the strong, gracious king I used to be. Hell, I don't even hunt any longer—I just sit in my carriage and watch as my scouts disappear into the woods, only to return a few hours later with a deer slung over their shoulders. I used to be strong, you know?” he turned his weak eyes on Lucius “Like you.”

Lucius smiled, mostly out of politeness “I'm flattered. But sadly, age comes for us all—beggar and king alike. Morrin claims who he wishes, and age is his herald.” he sipped at his tea, and joined Magnus in gazing off into the frozen peaks that cut the heavens. He let the winds speak, wordless silence taking over for but a few seconds.

“Have you considered writing a legacy, then?”

At this, Magnus smiled “Better yet. It's already written.” he gestured over his shoulder to one of the desks in his room behind “It's on the desk, right over there. Truth be told, I was too angry to write it after you left, but as my frustration simmered down, I saw the sense in doing it. So, there it is. I've written all those pretty things that the people would expect of someone like me. I've not showed it to anyone yet. But... maybe I'll let you be the first.” he turned his eyes on the tea that Lucius had brought with him, and reached out to pick one of them from the tray. Lucius felt as if his stomach turned to lead as Magnus took that cup of tea, his eyes darting between the two cups before one—-one on the table, one in Magnus' hand. Dire realization struck, as he found that he couldn't remember which one he had put the inky concoction in. His heart began to pound furiously, his mind churning and writhing as he looked at the two identical cups, trying to remember, cursing that he hadn't marked one of them somehow. What if the king drank from the clean cup, and didn't want any more?

“Are you alright, Lucius?” Magnus' words made him realize that he might have forgotten to hide his sudden anxiety, but as he looked up, he washed all trace of it away in one fell swoop. He smiled.

“Oh, apologies, my king... I'm sorry if it seemed as if I was not listening. I've been rather stressed as of late, what with the ongoing rebellion and all.”

Magnus smiled too, and chuckled as well “Oh? And here I thought you said that there was no cause for concern. Has something happened?”

Lucius shook his head “Nothing that you should concern yourself about, my king. I received some reports just a few minutes ago, that some of the rebel officers have been sighted in Moonby Sanctuary... if push comes to shove, and they somehow manage to recruit the noblemen to their cause, I fear that we may have to open up a new warfront—-and one that is far closer to home than what is comfortable.”

Magnus, despite what Lucius urged him to, seemed concerned for a moment. He looked into the tea in his lap, watching the ripples bounce off the porcelain rims “That would indeed be tragic... while the nobles have never joined us-—and probably never will-—we have always been kind and professional to one another. I would hate to wage war on a people so civilized.” Lucius let the silence take over from there. He sat back in his chair, watching as Magnus stared off into the distance, seeming as thoughtful as ever. Though he may have been a fool and a drunk, he did care for his people. But that did not stop Lucius from watching with breathless tension, as Magnus took a long sip of the tea in his hands.

“Hm.” Magnus commented, as he looked back into the tea with his smile returned “This is some curious tea you've gotten me, Lucius. I've been eating and drinking a lot of things in my time, but I don't believe I can put my finger on what fruit this is.” he looked to Lucius with great curiosity.

“That is because it is no fruit at all, my king.” Lucius said, clearing his throat, donning his cool and relaxed expression once more “It is an herb, from the far western keys of Jemero. Said to promote longevity and good fortune... though I suppose most of that is just superstition.”

Magnus smirked a little “So you went all this way to find an herb that I've never heard of and put it in my tea... for what reason? Is this a special day that I've forgotten about in my senility?”

Lucius uttered a quick laugh at this. For a second, he felt almost as if he would tell Magnus about just how important this day was... but with any luck, he would find out soon enough “Not that I know of, my king. I simply felt that upon our little debate yesterday, I would find something to... compensate, for say. Is it to your liking?”

Magnus nodded twice “It is, it is. Quite... exotic. Unlike anything I've tasted before, but good.” he looked back at Lucius, and smiled “As for compensation... I suppose I've done a bit of my own too.”

Lucius gave Magnus a curious look “Oh? Dare I ask in what form?”

Again, he motioned for the desk behind him “In my will... I've mentioned you more than once, Lucius. When I had finally come to my senses after our argument, I recalled just how much of an asset you've been, old friend. You've done more for this nation than many kings before me have... maybe you're even on par with myself.” he took another long sip of his tea. He looked into it, watching the waters swirl, a proud smile taking shape on his face, even though Lucius found that such heartfelt softness did not suit him “You'll make a fine king, Lucius.”

To this, Lucius could only smile as well. His beautifully white teeth shone in the light of the high sun as he looked over the balcony, feeling the cool breezes on his cheeks. He reached out and plucked a grape from the bundle at his side, flicking one into his mouth, feeling it burst between his teeth. As he swallowed, he looked back at Magnus, still smiling.

“Then why wait?”

At this, the king's own smile vanished “Excuse m—“ he was interrupted, and not by Lucius. His eyes suddenly widened, his breath cut off almost instantly, every muscle in his body tensing up as if paralyzed. The cup of tea shattered at his feet as his fingers cramped up, his entire body jerking violently, trying desperately to expel the poison that had begun to ravage him from inside. Lucius watched calmly as Magnus' eyes flickered wildly, saliva spilling from his mouth. He stood from his chair and folded his hands behind his back, simply watching with calm eyes at the suffocating, dying king before him. He looked down at him, and saw how petty he had become, from one second to the next. Glorious king the first; drooling, stammering fool the next.

“L-Lucius!” the king sputtered, his words slurred together and drowned in a flood of spittle filling up his mouth “What...” his teeth clattered and his pupils narrowed down to mere specks in his bloodshot eyes “What are you doing?!”

But Lucius just stood there, making no effort to save his king, not even as much as calling for help. He watched as the king fought all he could against the bitter grip of death, but he knew perfectly well that there was no escaping this fate. With his smile lingering, he approached, and put a hand on his shoulder. And right before Magnus stopped struggling, right before he drew his last half-drowned breath, Lucius whispered these words into his ear.

“Watching a beautiful sunrise.”
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 4
Oh how the plot thickens! There are several things in here that you, the reader, might want to think a little closer about - though I find that the most important one, is the face that Duncan sees in his star-sprinkled dream world. Who was that, I wonder.
And as always, thanks for reading! In case you're curious, this chapter is called 'Sunrise'.

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
Sweet was the sun that shone that day. Sweet was the entire world, it seemed. But then again, for a young boy like him, the world wasn't that big. It only encircled the most important things: the corn fields to which he had never seen an end; his room, where he would dream himself away to great destinies beyond the horizon, to the days where he would make a man of himself; but most important had to be the face of that darling girl down the street. It was such a pretty day, today, and more than just the gentle rays of the sun served to warm him up. He had dressed nicely—-or so he thought. In all truth, he had simply donned himself the denim trousers he liked the best, and those which his mother kept tell him not to sully with mud and dirt. But did he listen? He never quite thought it was that important-—a few mud stains here and there were charming! Girls liked a little mud, didn't they?

He looked up at the house before him, unable to stop smiling, his little heart jumping like an anxious rabbit in his chest. The house seemed so large, for a boy so small. There had to be sixteen stories, at least! He hadn't quite caught the concept of counting just yet, but sixteen sounded like a reasonable number, surely. Now, it was just a matter of knocking on that door.

He ran a hand through his hair, taking in a deep breath. His eyes switched here and there, looking down the streets nervously, quite firmly convinced that he couldn't do this if anyone was looking. Unfortunately, the street was fairly busy this hour—-at noon, Mr. Lloyd always came riding by with his cart and his oxen, carrying a pile of hay that he and the other boys firmly enjoyed playing in. But this time, he let the cart pass him by, watching it go, doing nothing. He had more important things to take care of. And he had brought flowers.

He liked to call them roses, but truth be told, he suspected them of being dandelions. His mother was quite knowledgeable on these kinds of things, but he was too embarrassed to ask his mother about what kind of flowers to bring a girl. So he had simply ventured out into the hills, picked the best and prettiest he could find, and declared himself satisfied. He just hoped that Lucy would feel the same way.

Finally, he came to terms with the fact that this street was not going to quiet down anytime soon. Casserton was always a dreadfully busy place, full of traders from all corners of the world... that is, that which he knew as 'the entire world'. He had heard stories of these people with long ears or dark skin, but the only people who came by these days were humans and those dreadfully sly Myaani. Especially the young boys were real artists when it came to playing tag; they were always so agile, it had been collectively deemed unfair by most human boys. However, he knew they were soft and squishy, and not nearly as strong as he and the other boys—-if he wanted to give one of them a beating, he could! He was convinced of it, as so many other things, for a boy of his age.
His fingers trembled, as they neared the daunting facade of the door. He held the half-squished dandelions in an anxious hand, the one hidden behind his back-—he wanted these pretty 'roses' to be a surprise, after all-—as he reached forward and knocked a few times on the door.

As he knocked, he was split between two fears; either he had not knocked hard enough and he had to go through the awkwardness of knocking again, or he had knocked hard enough, and had to run before Lucy came and opened the door. Yet here he stood, caught in painful dilemma, suddenly frozen. His jaw began to shake, sweat trickling already. What was he supposed to say? She had such a sweet smile, but he feared his was going to be a shivering abomination, and just scare her off immediately. He imagined her laughing at him and slamming the door... oh how the thought made him regret ever coming here... and yet he didn't run. He simply stood there, dandelions in his hand, watching as the door opened up.

The door creaked, the sharp noise making him freeze up even more than he did already. Though the sun was kind and gentle, though his beating heart pushed such amorous warmth through his entire body, at this very moment, he felt so paralyzingly cold. He felt his tongue grow thick in his mouth, and he feared he wasn't going to be able to speak either, to the girl whom he otherwise enjoyed speaking so much with. His fingers clenched around the dandelions, ready to thrust them at Lucy, shout 'For you!' and promptly run away. However, none of that happened, as he saw that it was not Lucy who opened the door. It was her father.

“Oh. Hello Duncan.” he said. Duncan's wide eyes traveled up the great big man's towering figure, several seconds passing before he met his eyes. Lucy's father was a strong man, powerful in spirit as much as body—-which was one of the reasons Duncan admired him like this. He calmed down, harboring no fear for Lucy's father; while he looked slightly intimidating in that soot-smothered apron—-for he was a blacksmith-—and his shaven head, he was one of the kindest men Duncan had ever met. He looked up at him, and smiled.

“Hello Mr. Armswright!” he said, trying not to show his unease “Is Lucy home?”

Lucy's father smiled right back, the big bushy mustache on his lip wiggling a little as he did “She is, actually. She is in her room, reading some books the priests gave her, but I'm sure she would be happy to see you. Come on in.” he said, moving away from the doorway, allowing Duncan to enter. And that was exactly what he did.

The floor creaked underneath him, and he liked to think that it was his own footsteps that did it—but of course, it was Mr. Armswright's huge feet behind him that made the floor bend and moan. Duncan had been here plenty of times; he knew where the kitchen was, the living room, the attic, and Lucy's door as well. Usually he would sneak a peek at what Ms. Armswright was cooking—-for she always cooked such delicious things, and more often than not, she let him have a spoonful of it—-but this time, he homed straight for Lucy's room. He looked over his shoulder at Mr. Armswright a few times, watching the giant man follow him with a smile on his chiseled face, hands folded behind his back. Duncan knew that one day, he was going to be like Mr. Armswright: kind, respected, smart... and big. With emphasis on the latter. He was fairly convinced that the size of one's heart grew proportionally with the size of one's body-—for in all his life, Duncan had never met a man as large as Mr. Armswright, who did not harbor the same benign kindness.

However, once Duncan came to a stop before Lucy's door, the focus shifted. He suddenly remembered why he was here. He took in a long breath, and cast a short glance up at Mr. Armswright. The big man looked down at Duncan, and smiled yet.

“She's very busy, but I'm certain she wouldn't mind being interrupted by you. Go ahead, Duncan. She's right in there. If you'd like a tray or cookies or some milk, simply hollar.” he said, and left Duncan at the door—but not without giving him a little wink at first. Duncan heavily suspected Mr. Armswright of having figured out what was going on here. Could it be because of the way he clutched the dandelions so hard that juice was running down his fingers?

But now that Duncan was here, standing before Lucy's door, he knew there could be no return. If he turned around now, he would lose some of Mr. Armswright's respect for certain. Not only that, but he would let a precious chance slip through his fingers. He looked at the door, and glared at it with challenge in his eyes. There were a lot of things he had been defeated by-—harsh winds, the inability to be mad at his mother for more than a few minutes, and particularly sly Myaani tag-players-—but he was not about to be defeated by a door. In a stalwart march, he approached the door, gripped the handle, and opened it right up.

But what awaited on the other side, was nothing of what he had expected. The strong, determined look he had otherwise built up suddenly crumbled, conquered by a strange look of confusion. For on the other side of the door, there was no Lucy-—only two men, one tall and strong with skin blasted by the sun, and an elf in a lab coat. He stood there, staring at them, hearing them bicker in a language he couldn't understand. And that was when everything changed.

A brutal wind swept in from the left, and carried everything away. Lucy's door, the gentle scent of Ms. Armswright's cooking-—the entire house. All of it was ripped from the ground and hurled out of existence as a hot, dry wind brought upon him a new world entirely. The green hills of The Fairlands were ground and filed away, turned to sand, turned to endless dunes that continued into a horizon that only offered more of this barren wasteland. Reality seemed to warp and change, and all he could do was stand there and watch it happen. However, even that changed, as he realized he wasn't standing any longer; he was sitting on a wooden chair, surrounded by white tents that had appeared out of thin air. And above him, there was a sun so hot that he could swear there was two. Already he could feel the sweat running down his arms, his neck, though he could not tell if it was heat or fear that spawned it. He sat on this chair, feeling sand rise and stab like needles against his cheek in wake of these brutal winds, all while these two strangers were shouting at one another, speaking a tongue that was completely foreign to him. He was so confused. So scared. So alone.

Then, suddenly, the human turned to face him. He was a powerful man, perhaps not as strong as Mr. Armswright, but he seemed like he had been through far more hardships than him. Over his nose there was a violent scar, and in his eyes, there was fear. He met his gaze, and saw a weakness within him that gave birth to a crippling hesitation, a reluctance and a dread that made him so oddly... familiar. Who was this man? And more importantly: why was he carrying a gun?

The elf kept talking to him in that strange language, but soon enough, he shut up. He met stares with the elf as well, and saw a sadness in them, and surrender too. He backed away from him, but the human only came closer. Duncan sat there, on the chair, feeling the sun on his skin, seeing the scorching heat rise from the sand to contort the air in strange blurs, warping the world around him, making him see things. But his attention was fully on the human who stood before him, as he raised the gun, its barrel mere inches from his forehead. He froze up, all muscles tensed, petrified. And that was when the man before him said something that he could understand clear as day.

“When you meet them... please don't tell the gods of this.”

He saw the trigger being pulled, he saw the man look away in terror, he saw the bullet fly in a split second, but never did he hear the gunshot.

In wake of the bullet digging through his skull, everything changed. Everything became white, pale white like the blast of the gun had blinded him, but then the whiteness darkened, turning a black deeper than the night sky itself. Everything seemed to swirl, reality forgotten, neglected. He stared into endless darkness, and he felt as if his body had turned to mist. He could feel nothing but a strange sense of floating, drifting upon the waves of an unseen ocean, carried upon a raft that would take him far, far away—farther than he already was. He wanted to scream, but he had no mouth. He wanted to cry, but he had no eyes, no tears. He had become part of the abyss, stretched out to feel everything, yet everything that was here, was nothing. And yet... there was something. In the distance, feeling as if it bled through another form of reality into this one, there was a voice. It was faint and far away, but he could recognize the word, for the word was his name. 'Duncan!' it called, though he could not possibly tell if it was shouting or whispering. And then, suddenly, he fell.

He could feel his body again, but he wished so dearly that he couldn't. Thousands of stars appeared like sprinkled diamonds upon an abyssal canvas, so infinitely black. He could feel no wind around him, but he knew that he was falling; he could feel it in his chest, in his arms, in his legs-—only then did he realize that he was not a child any longer. From one second to another, he had become a grown man—-he had become the man who shot him mere seconds ago. And then, he landed.

This time, the raft was literal. He grunted as he crashed unto a wooden platform, bending and yielding under his weight, dancing with the waves underneath. His body twitched, his fingers numb from an ungodly cold, eyes refusing to close. He stared up at the tranquil night sky, but as he sat up and looked down, he saw only more stars. He also saw that this raft that carried him was no raft at all, but a door, drifting over the night-shrouded heavens. Waves of black matter dotted with countless stares made this door sway up and down in a gentle rocking, far away from anything. He stared forward, and saw stars. He stared upwards, and saw stars. It did not matter any longer where he looked; there would always be stars. Most of him felt numb, but for some reason, he could feel his heart pound so hard, it felt as if it was made of steel.

“...Am I dead...?” he asked, eyes wide and unblinking, wondering if Morrin was going to answer him. But the god of death remained silent. He was not surprised; this did indeed seem like a realm far away from gods and men alike. He scampered on his knees to the edge of the door, and stuck his hand into the waters. They were strangely warm, and served to relieve some of the icy cold that had grasped his fingers. He stuck both hands in there, and saw how the stars swayed and contorted in the ripples he left in the gentle waves. He felt himself be absorbed, entranced in the infinity of it all—and yet, though the stars seemed so far away, he could touch them. He scooped up a handful of the warm celestial water, and true enough, in his hand he held a beautiful pink nebula. It roiled and churned in his unsteady hands, like a small luminescent slug of the deep, enigmatic seas.

He considered drinking it, but at his touch, it began to change. The nebula warped as if coming alive, and all Duncan could do was sit there on his knees, watching as it changed into something strangely... familiar. He almost dropped it, as he saw the face that it turned into. He felt a stab in his chest, as he stared into eyes of collected stars, seeing an enthralling smile shaped from heavenly pink mist. The bright colors of the nebula in his hand stung his eyes, but the bright smile of the face he knew so well stung his heart instead. This was a fascinating world of dreams, a playground of gods, but seeing her face in his hand made him long so dearly for reality. His tongue paralyzed, unable to speak her name, however much he wanted. He had never realized how beautiful she was, when she smiled like this... if only she would do it more often.

But in that second, everything was ripped away again. The door below him flung open, and that pretty face was ruined as he plunged into the warm waters. He gasped for breath, arms flailing wildly, but all he got was a pair of lungs full of the night sky itself. He felt all the stars, all the distant moons and nebulae filling him up—-and drowning him.

And that was when he woke up.

Everything was so bright, all of a sudden. Even with his eyes closed, he felt the light of noon pierce through his eyelids, countless needles thrust into his irises. His senses were confused and wrought in disorder, hot and cold seeming indiscernible, his entire body sweating and freezing at the same time. It felt almost as if he had been so long gone from reality that he had forgotten what it all felt like. Being alive. He could feel his chest rise with every breath, he could taste his own saliva, and he could hear blood rushing past his ears. His mouth stood ajar slightly, his tongue feeling so strangely swollen, as if it filled his entire mouth. Shivers kept putting the hairs on his arm on end, every nerve in his body seeming confused about what they were supposed to feel. However, in all this chaos, there were a few specks of clarity as well.

“Careful now, Duncan. Take it easy.” he heard a voice. He couldn't tell which voice, nor even the gender of it—it was as if he had forgotten how to tell these subtle differences. He could figure out the words and that the tone was calm, collected, but he couldn't for the life of him put a face on it. Determined to find out, he slowly opened up his eyes.

He wasn't surprised to find that what he saw was a fuzz, a blur of seething colors and features blending into one another like loose paint. But he could make out shapes decently, and much to his surprise, he saw not one face staring at him, but four. His eyes narrowed, his mouth opened up to speak, but all that came out of it was a slow and tired breath. A distant, wheezing sigh. Had he forgotten how to speak? He truly could not tell.

“Don't you have something to speed up the process, doc? We wouldn't want him slipping into unconsciousness again.” another voice asked, and he saw some of the faces move. One of them quickly shook, a finger raised to waggle.

“No no no, this has to be natural. If I try to intervene now, we may get him back, but we might also brain damage him... or worse. Patience, lieutenant.”

Lieutenant? Duncan tried to focus on the face that spoke, but it was hopeless. He noticed his vision clearing, but it was slow, sluggish, as if recovering from a grenade blast. He had been victim of those several times, and thought himself fortunate never to have lost a limb-—he prayed silently that this would be no different. His ears didn't ring, but all sounds seemed to slur together, forcing him to peel apart the words as they were spoken, or they would simply be an indistinct mutter of melted vowels.

“I...” he swallowed, his throat burning as he did “...I...”

“Be at ease now, friend.” he felt a hand on his chest, as gentle as an autumn leaf landing on him “Your grasp on the waking world is yet feeble and limp-—strain it, and you may fall.”

“I hate to say it, chieftain, but I don't think our friend here and hear us.”

“The one who does not try, accomplishes nothing, my dear mayor.”

He tried to move. He tried and he tried, but all of his limbs felt as if they had turned to lead. He strained as much as he could, but his efforts were in vain. His bones ached and his muscles contracted randomly, as if his body was still trying to figure out if all his limbs were still there. In truth, he too wasn't so sure at all. He tried wiggling his toes, and much to his relief, he could feel them doing so—this meant he had to have both of his legs with him still. He tried doing the same to his fingers, clenching and relaxing, and that worked too. Unless he had lost part of his stomach, it seemed to him that he was still intact... somewhat.

“Ah, look! He's moving!” another voice said, though he couldn't quite tell which one it was—however, one of the faces, a pale one with frizzy hair, leaned over to look him right in the eyes “Duncan, if you can hear me, you're doing great. Keep wiggling those fingers!” he could vaguely make out an upturned thumb and a smile on the face before him. Who was this even? He tried to focus, but everything was still a slur—but then realization struck. Could it be?

“Le...” his tongue struggled to articulate the name “...Lex...?”

His vision cleared up ever so slowly, and he saw how the smile grew even larger “That's me, Duncan! Great, so you're not that brain-damaged. Okay, I'm going to fold your table and put you into a sitting position, so hold on tight... and sorry if anything hurts.”

Fortunately for Duncan, he was too numb to feel pain at the moment. Lex's table whirred and buzzed as he flipped a switch, the whole thing automatically folding into a somewhat comfortable sitting position; but while the position may have been comfortable, Duncan was far from comfortable. He saw the slurry figures scoot a little closer, and he noticed how the shapes began to grow sharper, how all the colors parted and solidified ever so slowly. He saw the white-draped shape whom he assumed had to be Lex present a brownish figure, tall and strong, with a right arm completely covered in the metallic gleam of armor.

“Proceeding to test 2. I believe you've already met Lieutenant Wolfe, haven't you?”

Duncan's eyes narrowed, and only then did the pieces of the puzzle fall together, as he realized who this was. However, in the very same second, he felt a blade of anguish run him through. Memories associated with this face came flooding back, and for a second, he was stunned. Images of the Casserton graveyard filled his head, a scenery playing on repeat, showing him over and over again the gruesome sin that he had committed. The smell of blood, the taste of it, and the fractured mess that he had made of that poor woman's face. He saw how Lex stood there, expecting Duncan to say something, but he never did. He couldn't, even if he wanted to. The filth that welled up inside of his stomach lodged tight his throat, as he recalled what he had done.

“He recognizes me just fine.” the hard, growling voice of Edan Wolfe was unmistakable, even through this slur of his senses. His vision grew sharper with by each second, and it did not take long before he there were but a few strips of distorted vision hovering over his eyes, like translucent curtains torn to shreds and scattered everywhere. He saw now that he was inside a tent, white and wide, much like the ones that he remembered from his time in the Wastelands. But very much unlike the Wastelands, he could smell something strange. Rain.

“I see.” Lex said, and Duncan could see the concerned in those smooth features of his. He ran a hand through his frizzy hair, his eyes averting; he wasn't wearing his mask. Duncan continued to open and close his hands, and he could feel some sensation returning to his limbs again. His head still pounded, and he knew that standing up was going to be a problem.

“How... how long...?” he forced the words from his burning throat, but it was another tongue that finished for him.

“How long have you been away?” Duncan slowly turned his head to see a Myaani by his side, tall and aged, with a blindfold over his eyes. Bone-adorned jewelry and leather clothing littered in the smooth curls and curious glyphs made him look like someone of importance indeed. Yet the strangest thing about him, was the way that Duncan could feel his stare upon him, despite the blindfold. Simply looking at him made Duncan's stomach twist and his nerves tingle, as if this Myaani wielded a stare invisible to the naked eye; like a distant reality granting him sight beyond what mortal law allowed.

“How much do you recall, before you lost your grip on the waking world, soldier?” he asked. While it was clear that age had taken its toll on him, his voice held an authority and strength unlike most he had ever heard. Duncan stared into that empty blindfold for surprisingly long, lost in the otherworldly sense that seemed to engulf the chieftain like an aura distorting the barrier between dreams and reality. He quickly noticed he lost track of time, and couldn't quite figure out how long time he had been staring.

“Uhh... I...” he stared down at his feet for a moment while lying here on Lex's table, trying to recall “I remember... I remember a battle. I remember screams, and the sound of arrows flying.” a brutal image flashed before his eyes “And I recall Ramund being hit.” his eyes snapped to Lex, wide, anxious “Is he really dead?”

Lex quickly shook his head, smiling “I'm glad to report that he isn't. That old man is tough, that's for certain, but what kept him alive... well, tough as he may be, it wasn't his strength that breathed life into him. By all logic, he should've been dead. Three arrows, two of them striking straight through vital organs, and yet I had the pleasure of seeing him rise again. I would say that it was beyond science... but I couldn't call myself a scientist, if I said such a thing.” he smirked knowingly, and even with his head spinning, Duncan could tell that Lex was very well aware that something had happened that he could not explain.

“You've been out cold for days now, captain.” a fifth voice joined in, this one old and haggard, and the same could be said about the man who carried it. He stood at the end of the table, near Duncan's feet, his bony fingers curled around a cane. Bags hung under his eyes, his face wrinkled and liver-spotted, his head only boasting a few pale strands of hair. Although he carried no intimidating aura like the Myaani chieftain, Duncan could tell by the dark blue suit with a furry collar that this man was no less important.

“You're lucky we found you when we did. Or, well, when Lex here found you. You and your companions were hit badly when a warg charged you, breaking bones and shaking heads. The only one who managed to get out without falling unconscious was lieutenant Wolfe here.” he said, his gaunt hand gesturing at Wolfe, who stood as stark and stalwart as always with his arms folded over his leather-bound chest “But don't worry... none of yours died. Your mother suffered a few damages, fragile woman as she is, but she is well and good by now.” Duncan sighed in relief, a silent prayer of gratitude sent to the heavens in wake of this news.

“Needless to say, you've missed out on a lot, Duncan.” Wolfe continued, eyes unwavering, full of something between pity and disdain “In the time you've been out, things have... culminated. You've made a lot of friends, but probably a lot of enemies as well. With any luck, Deum will have heard of how the people of Casserton, Westport, and the Tu'Myaa have banded together to create the first official rebel force against his rule. And if we're really fortunate, he pissed his pantaloons a little when he read the report.” Wolfe's lips curled shrewdly into a smirk, his stern eyes gleaming with a strangely mocking glee.

Duncan blinked, perhaps it was the concussion playing a trick with his thoughts, or perhaps this news truly just was that hard to comprehend “E-excuse me?” he sputtered “A rebel force?”

Wolfe turned a look at the chieftain and the Westport mayor “I'm sure we could tell him all about it, but perhaps a demonstration would be in order.” he looked to Lex next “Can he walk?”

In response, Lex shrugged “Hard to tell without trying. Shall we?” he asked, gaze turned on Duncan. And to that, Duncan slowly nodded.

“If I've really been lying down for days on end, maybe it's time I get back on my feet.” He forced out a slow chuckle, as he leaned forward to push his legs over the edge of the table. His joints ached and stabbed with pain, feeling as if they were riddled in rust, but he gritted his teeth and endured. Lex and Wolfe came in from both sides to help him get on his feet; he could feel the mud underneath his shoes, and the water seep into his half-numb toes. His balance was a mess, and he knew perfectly well that standing on his own was not a possibility at the moment. But with the help of Lex and Wolfe, he made his way outside, the greet the new world that waited for him out there.

The sun stood at its prime, tall on the sky and celestial white, scattering its light all over this strange, wet realm that he stepped into. He couldn't feel much in his toes, but he could feel them sink into the mud; the mud that seemed to have conquered all, save for the rickety stone road that sliced through the camp like a scar. Duncan stood silent for a while as he looked over all the tents that stood, all the white little encampments looking exactly as if they were picked from the darker parts of his memory, and placed into reality. It looked exactly like the camp he had spent so many years in, far south from here-—the only difference seemed to be the climate. And yet, there was something else. He saw it in the eyes of the soldiers that marched by, either in strict patrols or on afternoon jogs, in the smiles of those fully clad in armor or resorting to a more casual attire. He wasn't sure what it was at first, but it was there, and it was clear on the face of everyone. Myaani and man alike, soldier and citizen. Simply by stepping outside that tent, he saw mothers and fathers play tag with their children; he saw soldiers sharing jests and barking in laughter-—quite literally, if they were Myaani; and he saw commanders joining in too. First then, did he realize what he saw. He had such a hard time recognizing it, for it had been so few times he had had the pleasure of seeing it. It was hope.

“Welcome to Camp Dawn, Duncan.” Wolfe's smile was strangely grinning as he looked out over the marching soldiers, the endless mud, the mists slithering like giant white slugs over the land “First camp of the Dawn rebellion. While personally I'm a little on the fence about the name, it wasn't me who decided it; it was something the mayor and the chieftain thought up.” he shrugged slightly “And, when you think about it, it makes a fair amount of sense. If Deum's rule is the night, the deprivation of truth that is the light, then we are the dawn-—the first rays come to scare away the darkness, and with many more to come.” he snorted “Good gods, I'm beginning to sound poetic.”

“It suits you.” Lex followed up with a chuckle “Better than that stern, buff demeanor you engulf yourself in.”

“Oh please, shut up.”

“Though, by that logic,” Duncan chimed in, looking up at Wolfe, who was a few inches taller than him “King Magnus should be the first rays of light, shouldn't he?”

Wolfe gave a shrug, not caring to look Duncan in the eyes as he spoke “The king is a good man, but he is old. His heart might be on the right place, but I'm not sure I can say the same about his head-—or his gut, for that matter. He spends most of his time drinking the years away, and going on so-called 'hunts'-—which, in truth, are just expeditions of him sitting in his royal carriage with archers to fetch him fresh deer while he savors the fresh air of the Southern Valley woods.” Wolfe clearly couldn't keep back a smirk, amused by the thought, amused by the laze of royalty. He still gazed out over the sea of tents, a nod given to the occasional soldier that passed by, man or Myaani, it did not matter.

“But you're right. To a point.” Lex added from the sideline “For Deum to execute any larger orders, they'll need the stamp of approval from the king. And the king, who seems to care more for the people than Deum does, has been known to put a shackle on Deum's schemes from time to time. Still, he's not as much a ray of dawn-light as he is a simple lantern.” he continued, staying within the realm of metaphors.

“But this is not the time to discuss politics, I'm sure.” Wolfe spoke up, this time turning a look on Duncan-—he even smiled at him “There's someone who deserves to see that you're awake.”

Duncan found it easier to walk, the more he moved his legs. Walking down the shabby, muddy road that cut through Camp Dawn, Duncan did the best he could to walk on his own—but in the end, he always had to rely on the shoulders of Lex and Wolfe. His bones still felt as if they had corroded, every muscle aching as if they had never been used. Even so, the more he tried, the more sensation returned to them. It was like a warmth slowly spreading from his feet and upwards, a warmth that soothed his pain and washed away the imperfections within. But when Lex and Wolfe came to a stop in front of a tent closer to the center of the camp, he was still far from independence, and had to cling on to whatever help he could get, if he didn't want to collapse.

“Lex, hold him for a minute, will you?” Wolfe asked, though he didn't wait for an answer before he let go of Duncan and let him rest on Lex entirely. Duncan clung to his rather flimsy shoulders, afraid for a moment that the scrawny doctor would collapse with him. However, as Wolfe approached the tent and stuck a head in through the entrance, he endured. Wolfe spoke some hushed words that Duncan couldn't quite make out, but before long, he gestured them to follow. And follow they did.

“I figured if anyone needed to know that he'd gotten back on his feet, it would be you.” Duncan heard Wolfe say from behind, as Lex led him in through the linen entrance. It was a cozy little place with space only for the essentials; a bed, a wardrobe, a nightstand, and a desk. Several papers lay neatly stacked upon the desk, ink blots scattered over the wood; someone had been busy writing, it seemed. But Duncan wasn't allowed much time to spy the place inside, before he was assaulted by a pair of arms wrapping around his torso.

“The gods have not forgotten us!” she declared ecstatically, and even for such an old woman, she truly could hug quite tightly. Duncan grunted slightly, a dagger of pain jolting through his bones as his mother lovingly assaulted him.

“Whoa now, go easy on him—he's still rather fragile, Miss Ross.”

“No no, I...” Duncan let out a long breath as he forced himself to stand on his own two legs, so that he could give his mother the embrace she deserved “...I'll be alright.”

“Oh Duncan... I had thought you dead for certain.” Agatha continued as she let go of her son, taking a step back to look him in the eyes, tears of joy in her own. Her gaunt fingers trembled and her face was a battleground between disbelief and joy “So little I've slept, and so much I've prayed. How good it is to see that my prayers have not been for naught.”

Lex huffed a little, perhaps thinking that he was the one to be thanked rather than the gods. Wolfe followed up shortly “At this point, nobody could have known which way it would go. Lyrras and Morrin were playing a very long game of dice over his soul... but it seems that Lyrras won this one, didn't he?” he said with a smirk, while scooping an arm in under Duncan's shoulders to keep him on his feet.

Duncan smiled, uttering a chuckle “I'm glad that Lyrras found it in his heart to grant me my life, but it seems Keyen didn't grant me the fortune of a pair of functioning legs...” he quickly looked to Agatha, suddenly realizing his words “...yet. Don't worry, mother, I'm not paralyzed.” he looked to Lex “Right?”

Lex quickly shook his head “No no no, have no fear; you'll be going on hikes and doing flip-flops soon enough. I'd love to speed up the process, but as said before, this is something that needs to happen naturally, or I might permanently re-arrange or damage your nerves. Yes, I confess: even I make mistakes.” he said, not without a mirthful snicker following.

“I really should let you two re-unite, but...” Wolfe cleared his throat, occasionally throwing a look at the bed in the back of the tent “...I believe we didn't catch you alone, did we?” he asked, eyes on Agatha.

Duncan seemed a little confused at first, uncertain of what Wolfe was talking about, but then he noticed. In the bed, there was a lump in the blankets. A rather large lump at that, vaguely shaped like a child sitting with its arms wrapped around its knees.

“No... you did not.” Agatha muttered under her breath, looking back at the bed as well. Curiosity sprouted within Duncan, but he said nothing, simply watching as Agatha pulled up a chair to take a seat by the bed. A silence stifled the room, an uneasy tension rising, Duncan having the distinct sensation that he missed something important here. Lex grabbed another chair and scooted it in under Duncan, giving him something else to rest on than his and Wolfe's shoulders.

“Matvey...” Agatha began, her voice softened and kind. It reminded Duncan of the way she would speak to him, when he was but a young boy hiding under the bed or the wardrobe, trying to escape the rigors of daily chores.

“...Would you like to come out? These are very kind men, meaning you no harm. Mr. Wolfe is with them. Do you remember Mr. Wolfe?” she asked, smiling even now, despite that this 'Matvey' probably couldn't see it. Duncan had never heard a name like this before, but it had the tone of a people he only knew of through word of mouth and newspapers. And when Matvey reluctantly pulled down the blanket that tucked him away, his suspicions were confirmed.

“Oh... oh wow.” The first thing Duncan noticed, was the unnerving stare that the young boy possessed. The hairs on his neck rose as he felt those vertical pupils gaze right into him, seeming almost as if someone had torn out the eyes of a cat and put them right into the sockets of the boy before him. And the small, stumpy horns on his head only made it worse, but when the tail came into sight, Duncan knew there could be no doubt: this was a child of these strange people who called themselves 'Krov'. He was a bizarre amalgamation, a joke played upon the world—-but a joke that got out of hand, and became... this. For a while, Duncan could only stare at the chimeric wonder that sat curled up in the bed before him, his stare switching between those haunting eyes and the red-dyed tail that was almost as large as the boy himself. But not Lex, not Wolfe, and not Agatha seemed particularly fazed by the boy's appearance. Indeed, Duncan had missed a lot.

“Glad to see you're doing well, kiddo.” Wolfe broke the eerie silence, easing the tension with a soft smile at Matvey “I'm sure you've been told this before, but you're one tenacious little man. Most children your age would've succumbed to the cold long before I found you.”

To this, Matvey smiled. That was when Duncan noticed. Staying true to the stories he had heard, Matvey was equipped with a pair of jagged fangs, diabolizing the boy in just one little smile. Duncan felt a bitter chill in his veins, one he could only remember feeling when he saw a demon for the first time, so many years ago. But maybe he was staring at one right now.

“Papa tells me I must thank my blood for that.” Matvey said, a thick accent in his voice. It was the first time Duncan had heard the voice of these odd creatures, and he found it rather difficult to understand even such a simple sentence. Matvey seemed to have relaxed a bit now in the presence of Wolfe, though Duncan couldn't fathom why. Wolfe seemed such a stern, brazen man, and yet Matvey found refuge and solace within him.

“And with good reason, actually.” Lex chimed in, now leaning on Agatha's desk, hands deep in the pockets of his lab coat “Even science can't quite explain it yet, but your blood—-the blood of all Krov, in fact-—possesses an innate physical superiority unlike anything we've ever put under the microscope. Enhanced healing, an impeccable immune system, near-inexhaustible endurance... the list goes on, really. I'm not surprised in the least that you survived however long time you've been out there in the cold without food or drink. In fact, I'm quite sure you could've handled a few days more.”

Matvey stared at Lex as he spoke, his feline eyes full of a dumbfounded confusion. Only then did it seem that Lex realized he was speaking to a child, and that most of what he said fell on deaf ears. Lex shook his head, a slow 'never mind' spilling out before the Krov child.

“Wolfe.” Duncan's voice was lowered as he looked up at him, pulling him a little closer with a tuck on his sleeve. He spoke through gritted teeth “I'm feeling a severe lack of information here. Why do we have a Krov child in our camp?”

“Because he would have died otherwise.” Wolfe responded, looking down at Duncan through the corner of his eyes, condescension in his stare.

“Yeah, but... who is he?” Duncan continued, unsatisfied.

“He's Matvey. Weren't you listening?” A crude smirk grew on Wolfe, and Duncan sighed once he realized he wasn't going to get a proper answer out of him.

“Matvey Zakadiev, to be exact.” Agatha spoke up from the bedside “You were still deployed when the Krov arrived at our shores, only five years ago. I don't blame you if you haven't heard of them, Duncan. Not while knowing how the Crusade treats its soldiers, when it comes to information.” though her words carried a distinct reek of spite, it was quickly slain as she drew a smile for Matvey “Would you like some sweets, dear?”

Matvey's face visibly lit up at this, eyebrows raised and a smile to mirror Agatha's—though with added fangs. He nodded swiftly, his lengthy hair swaying as he did. In many ways, his hair looked a lot like Duncan's, but neatly combed and pale like the mists of the outside world, rather than the shaggy black mane that hung from Duncan's head.

“I've heard the name.” Duncan spoke as he looked upon the black and red of Matvey's clothes, the rich velvet, the intricate design that spun tales of a distant, alien culture “Rarely with anything positive attached.”

Lex contributed with a ridiculing snort “If you think that the world would openly welcome an entire race of tailed goat-cat-vampires with the tongues of serpents, then you're too naive for your own good, Duncan.”

Duncan sent Lex a cold, sideways glare “If I were that naive, I wouldn't be here, rebelling against a superpower that has nearly coerced the entire world to fall under its wing. But then again... I was naive enough to serve it, just weeks ago. So maybe I am, Lex. Maybe I am.” he ran a hand through his hair, and looked back at Matvey “But yes, I've heard of your family, Krov boy. Nobility, right?”

Matvey's vertical pupils narrowed slightly as he looked at Duncan, his mouth full of some pieces of candy that Agatha had fetched for him. Again, he nodded.

“Which is one of the reasons why this is such a big problem.” Wolfe added, gesturing at Matvey “If he were just a boy, we'd return him right away. Sadly, being noble, even hinting that we might have him could lead to some... unnecessary accusations. And the last thing we need now from those whom we are trying to ally with, is a bad reputation.”

Duncan looked up at Wolfe, and saw that he was holding specific words back-—probably because of Matvey sitting right there. But Duncan knew what he was talking about. Even now, it reeked far off of kidnapping. He looked back at Matvey... and saw only trouble.

“And as it happens, we might be at a risk of doing exactly that.” Lex sat on the desk now, his slender fingers twiddling in his lap “Telling the Zakadievs, that is. Look, Duncan... we've come across a little issue. It's about Rose.”

Duncan's heart clenched at the mention of that name, his attention piqued and his stomach tight “Rose? What has happened?” he asked, perhaps a little too quickly.

“That's the thing.” Lex shrugged “We don't quite know. But something happened, that's for certain. She must have been sitting at your bed while you were out, and in that room, something went down-—gods know what. She left a note by your bedside, and by the first ray of dawn, she was nowhere to be found. Ramund set out for Moonby Sanctuary to find her... and that's the last we've heard from both of them.”

“Well then what are we waiting for?!” Duncan declared, quickly getting to his feet and forgetting that walking was not an option right now. Thankfully, Wolfe was swift enough to catch him before he collapsed in the mud.

“We were waiting for you, actually.” Wolfe said, as he held up Duncan by his shoulders “Whatever the case, we need to go to Moonby and speak with the nobles... we just also need to make sure that our snow-born friend keeps certain information at bay, or things might go south really quickly.”

“Then get me a horse, and stop wasting time!” Duncan spat, suddenly and perhaps a bit irrationally frustrated. However, as he looked at Agatha, he softened. He looked at her and sighed from his nose, seeming solemn.

“I'm really sorry, mother. I know you've been so anxious to see me awake again, but—-“

“Don't worry about it.” Agatha interrupted, giving Duncan a soft smile as she stood to approach her son “You've come this far, I can't expect you to let go of your duties, just because your old mother feels lonely. I've been alone all these years... I'm sure I can manage a few days more.” she laid her gaunt hand on Duncan's cheek, feeling the rough stubble of a beard that was beginning to grow “Kendrew would be proud of his son, I'm sure of it.”

Duncan returned the smile, and reached out with one arm to embrace his mother once more “I'm proud of you too, mom, and of dad. Proud that you've endured, in all this time. Don't worry about me. I'll be back before the week's end.”

“In which case, you'll need to get some pep in your step.” Lex commented, a gun-finger pointed as Duncan and Wolfe “You might not be able to ride, Duncan, but I'm sure there's space for two on one horse. Moonby Sanctuary is no more than a few hours from here anyway.”

“Let us pray that Ramund won't do anything stupid in that time-space, then.” Wolfe wrinkled his nose, though he smiled as he looked at Matvey “Stay safe, kid, and be nice to Agatha. For the time being, consider her your own mom.”

As he and Wolfe made their way out the linen entrance again, followed shortly by Lex and Agatha's longing gaze, he couldn't help but cringe a bit at Wolfe's comment. Did that mean that Matvey was his brother? He shuddered slightly and gave it no more thought, once they set off for Moonby Sanctuary.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 3.5
Oh how the plot thickens! There are several things in here that you, the reader, might want to think a little closer about - though I find that the most important one, is the face that Duncan sees in his star-sprinkled dream world. Who was that, I wonder.
And as always, thanks for reading!

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!
Another hour seemed to pass. Time crept as slow as the mist crept over these muddy lands, like slugs they both left a trail of monotony in their wake, the things here never seeming to change. The bleak whiteness looked terribly much like what he saw an hour ago, and the hour before that. The warg had not set up the pace or slowed it down at all, entranced in a trot that seemed as if it would never end-—much like the stony road that they were traveling on. However, Ramund had noticed something odd about that road. It was as if it was growing wider. Before, the warg could scarcely fit on it, but now there could surely be two wargs moving shoulder by shoulder, and still keep out of the mud that that surrounded it. He had also noticed a some trails in the roadwork that certainly were not horseshoes; they were cartwheel tracks, by the looks of it. Somewhat recent too. Ramund had wondered for a while why these things showed up just now... but then he was given his answer.

The monotony of the travel was shattered in an instant, like fragile glass thrown against a rock. Ramund had always looked up to see more mist, more spectral white with a vague sun glaring through the drifting droplets, but what he looked up to see now, was something quite else. A hand of dread gripped his heart for a moment as he looked up at what he thought was some kind of immense giant, but the dread quickly faded as he saw that it was made of stone—-and it had a twin. He craned his neck backwards to peer up at the massive statues of knights in proud armor, greatswords in their hands, the tip kissing the stone at their feet. And in between them, a great big gate towered high over the mud and mist, stalwart and imposing, with five great emblems painted upon its wooden facade.

Ramund's mind strained a little, but he could recognize them all. There was the proud rearing lion upon a clifftop, red with the colors of House Rex. There was the tall stag in a meadow, gilded with a rising sun behind it, that of House Cercy. There was the soaring eagle painted across a map of The Mortal Realm, heralding the great House Hedwen. There was the shadowy owl, tinted silver under the light of the full moon, black as House Umbral preferred. And finally, in the bottom, the black and red colors wove together to shape the emblem of House Zakadiev: a slithering snake with bared fangs, dripping red, eyes keen. Ramund had long wondered why the Zakadievs would portray themselves with such a vile creature... but perhaps snakes had another reputation in their homeland.

“You there!” Ramund's attention quickly rose to the walls, as a voice called out for him “Identify yourself!”

Ramund could barely see who was calling, but with squinted eyes, he could make out a vague shape standing atop the great stone walls. A massive shadow cast from the walls, visible all through the mist, the silhouette of a guardsman adding but a tiny bit more to it. His voice echoed off the walls he stood on, and Ramund's voice echoed right back.

“I am Ramund Bjornsson, sergeant of the Dawn rebellion!” he shouted, hoping that the word of their rebellion had reached this far “Are these the gates of Moonby Sanctuary?”

Some muttering was heard from the top of the gates, followed by some brief laughter; the guardsman was not alone, by the sound of it. The warg glared upwards as well, lips peeled back in a growing sneer.

“You must be quite new to the Wetlands, my friend. There are no walls like these within the entire region; we are second only to Godshill, and if you think you're standing before the gates of Godshill, then you're far more lost than I thought.” the guardsman shouted back, and even from here, Ramund felt as if he could see a mocking smile curl on his face “We've heard of your rebellion, Sergeant, and would like to wish you good luck. You may need it. Now, what exactly is it you're riding? That's one hell of a horse, from what I can see.”

“It is no horse, guardsman.” Ramund called back, a smile of his own now upon him “It is a warg. And there are hundreds more from whence they came. With creatures like these, we will not need your luck—-but I thank you for it, nonetheless.”

“A warg?” the guardsman sounded genuinely impressed “And I who thought those things were the work of fairy tales. I can't allow you to bring it in through the gates, though. Horses, sure, but I'm not about to let a monster like that one into our city. You'll have to tie it up by one of the poles to your left, or you're not coming in.”

Ramund turned a sideways gaze, and saw a few wooden poles standing from the roadwork. These things were meant for horses, though; a warg would snap it effortlessly. Still, if it was the only way to get inside, he knew he didn't have much choice. He slid from his saddle, and lead the warg to one of the poles, tying her reins to it. The warg didn't seem particularly pleased, but slouched to her stomach nonetheless, clearly knowing she may have to be here for a while. Ramund gave her a few comforting pats on her head, smiling. He could still see his turquoise magic dancing around inside her eyes—-perhaps, once that magic had faded, the warg would simply stand up and leave. With the warg's eyes following him, he moved back to the front of the gates, and raised his voice for the guardsman to hear.

“There. The warg is tightly secured. Would there be anything else?”

Again, there was some muttering from up there in the fringes of the mist. Ramund waited patiently, arms folded, gaze turned skyward to the guardsmen.

“That would be all. Welcome to Moonby.”

In that very moment, the gates began to rumble, rust screaming and mechanisms churning like thunder. Like great sideways jaws, the wooden gates slowly yawned open, and revealed the city beyond. Ramund smiled, satisfied, and made his way inside.

As he trod through the towering mouth of Moonby Sanctuary, he couldn't help but think that the sound of the gates opening was the only sound this city had heard all day. The gates closed behind him, and his eyes climbed up the grey bricks of tall houses, several stories tall, all covered in a thin layer of glistening water—-it seemed almost as if they were sweating. They stood like tall, mute giants of grey stone and mist, oddly lonesome despite that there were thousands like them, all around. Ramund's gaze could only reach as far as the white curtains would allow him, but even so, he could see the silhouettes of countless more houses of sleepy grey bricks peek forth in the distance. The light of early noon was splintered into a myriad of slender pillars, their paths abruptly ended by the tall buildings blocking their ways. Ramund turned a gaze here, one there, but there was not a soul to be seen. He had never been to Moonby Sanctuary before, but the stories of great theaters and noble society had given this place such a lively reputation. Yet of all things he saw when he stepped in through those gates, 'lively' was not one of them. All that greeted him, were the tired houses with raindrops dripping from their roofs, and creeks running in the gutters beside him.

He found himself on a single road, wide and smooth, far cleaner and prettier than the jagged bricks he had been traveling on for a few hours now. There was hardly any mud in here either; it was quite odd to see how it all had come to a stop as soon as he stepped through those gates. But when he thought about it, it made quite a lot of sense; if this truly was the city of nobility, the finer ladies would not want mud on their dresses, and the lords not on their newly-polished leather shoes. If only, perhaps, he could see one of these lords or ladies. For as of now, he could see no one. The only company he had, was a stray cat in the corner of his eyes, clawing at a nearby door and yowling for the warmth of a hearth. Ramund hadn't noticed it much, being a child of snow and mountains, but the cold was quite present, especially with the mist hanging. Tiny icy teeth nibbled at his skin, but while the cat seemed to hate it, it only made him feel strangely nostalgic.

“You know, we don't see many visitors like you these days, Sergeant Ramund Bjornsson.” Ramund looked to his left and saw a guardsman come walking down a long grey staircase, reaching all the way to the tops of the walls. He had the same voice as the guardsman he spoke with before, so he figured it was the same one. He wore a rather easy uniform of boiled leather and a surcoat emblazoned with all five coats of arms, even the bloodied snake of Zakadiev. Ramund recognized this to be the uniform of the city guard, those who did not belong to any of the houses, yet belonged to all of them. In a city of aristocracy, most things belonged to the houses, after all.

“And with good reason.” Ramund said, looking down at the guardsman, arms folded “I take it you've seen the fires?”

“And heard the rumors?” the guardsman snorted brashly “You can be damn sure we have, though no one can agree on what the cause is, nor how to proceed. You've come in a time of turmoil, sergeant. Moonby Sanctuary isn't really the sanctuary it used to be.”

Ramuned turned a curious look at the guardsman, who had now seated himself on one of the grey brick steps, his leather boots playing idly in the gentle creek that flowed in the side of the road “It is a time of turmoil for all of The Mortal Realm, my friend. It is simply a matter of realizing it before it is too late.”

The guardsman snorted “Do you think so? Well, go ahead, tell the nobles that. They sit in their council halls all day, entering with great ideas in their heads, and leaving with nothing accomplished. None of the five houses can seem to agree on what must be done; others claim that there should be done nothing at all, and that this is all but an intimidation game from The Crusade, trying to scare us all in under their wing... and it's working. There are more than a few who have voiced that idea; while Moonby Sanctuary is usually a quiet place, we've faced some riots from time to time.” he looked back up at Ramund “You're right when you say that it is a time of turmoil for us all, but I get the feeling that Moonby Sanctuary will tear itself to shreds before we even get to see what it is that is burning the forests and pillaging the southern villages.”

Ramund slowly shook his head “The Crusade is responsible for many things, but this is not one of them. The threat is very real. Those fires are not for show; the smoke is not some magic trick meant to scare those lesser of mind.” his voice turned dire and dark “Those who flee will see themselves under the smothering wing of The Crusade soon enough; those who stand idly by will see themselves destroyed... those who stand up and fight, however.” he smiled a little, but left it at that. He stared down the misty road once more, seeing how it too was drowned away into the thick of white, enigma shrouding everything. Finding that rider was going to be difficult, in a city where even the city itself was difficult to find. He quickly turned to look back at the guardsman.

“Pardon me changing the subject, but... you said you didn't see many visitors like me, these days. Perchance you've seen a rider come by recently, perhaps even with... how to say... 'luggage'?”
The guardsman was sitting with a cigarette in his mouth now, trying to strike a match, but it seemed horribly difficult in this thick mist. His matchbox had been dampened, his cigarette too, and eventually he just gave up. He looked back up at Ramund.

“If by 'luggage' you mean a woman in leather armor and white linen, then yeah.” he said, while stuffing his cigarette back in his chest pocket “Whoever the rider was, he was reported to have left the city just a few hours before that-—and without the company of said woman. I remember it being a little hard to see him, all dressed in black with a hood thrown over his head—-he almost seemed to meld together with his equally black steed. Rather unnerving if you ask me, but the woman didn't seem to mind. As a matter of fact, she seemed oddly pleased with the rider's company.”
Ramund tried not to show his cringe, but it was not easy. The thought made him sigh quietly; enjoying the company or not, Rose did not know what was good for her. Strange of her to simply ride along with the stranger; and here Ramund thought that she was paranoid. Was there something about the rider that had enticed her? He had the feeling that Rose was the kind of woman to be enticed by enigma and mystery-—and that it would be her undoing one day. He prayed that it would not be this day.

“Thank you.” Ramund said swiftly, head bowed slightly in gratitude “You have been a great help, my friend. Spirits guide you.” he did not wait for a farewell from the guard, before he turned around on his heel, and marched down the misty road.

The mist grew no less thick, as he delved deeper into the sleepy greyness of the sanctuary. In fact, Ramund could have sworn that it was growing thicker. The way it crept through stony alleys like spectral serpents; the way it clung to the brick walls of the looming houses; the way it coiled around his feet like a thousand grasping hands from a world underneath. He had grown more aware of the smooth cold that had laid over his skin, like bony fingers of ice caressing him. The sound of droplets of yesterday's rain was omnipresent-—no matter where he went, there was always that perpetual sound of water dripping like tears from the weeping homes, gathering in growing pools at their feet. More than once had he seen something in the corner of his eyes, something lurking in the alleys, a figure bleak and creeping, but every time he turned to look, it was gone. However, as he came deeper into the sanctuary, there were a few living faces too. He passed by a merchant slowly opening up his boutique; a shoe salesman, from what he could tell. Near one of the many rivers that ran through the sanctuary like veins through a hand, he saw a woman with her child, her feet dangling over the running waters while she read children's stories for the young boy. It was quite the relief to see that they didn't shoot him any odd glances... perhaps Mjaln were not that uncommon here in the sanctuary.

He had taken the chance, whenever he noticed someone who wasn't simply a trickster demon playing japes on him in the mist, to ask about the mysterious rider. Most had said they saw nothing; some had even told him not to ask around like this, and keep to himself. However, once in a while, there was the odd one that told him he or she had seen a rider like this, and pointed him in the direction they saw him ride. Strangest of all was none of them could see his face. They claimed a strange swirling shadow had engulfed his features under a ragged black hood, and it seemed to whisper and play with their thoughts. He had feared that there were perhaps more riders like these, but all those who told about the rider could confirm they had seen a woman with black hair, leather armor, and white linen clothing too. And from what Ramund could tell, there was only one Rose in the whole wide world.

The Sanctuary, he noticed, was perhaps not a dead and gravely city, but simply a tired one. There was no such thing as early risers in this place, as it was nearly noon at this point, yet the shopkeepers were only just now about to open up their shops and booths. There were not many, nothing compared to the bustling and vivid metropolis of trade that Aegon once was, but there was enough to call this city 'living'. It was far from dead. It was just... slow.

However, that did not seem to reach into what Ramund deduced to be the slums of the sanctuary. He had thought for a moment that he was going to be rid of the mud for a while yet, but those assumptions were crushed like glass when he saw how the fine brick roads slowly seemed to succumb to the suffocation of mud and grime. It was astonishing to witness this strange transformation. From one district to another, from albeit sleepy but living grey stone, to the squalor of homes that leaned limply forward, decaying wood blackened and bleak, harboring no life at all. The mud sucked and pulled at Ramund's boots with every step, the roads having fallen apart, become little but stray tiles scattered here and there. He could no longer tell the difference between road and alley and avenue, many of them abruptly stopping in dead ends, others seeming like they would have continued a while onwards, had someone not decided to build their wooden home in the very middle of them. Filthy memories of Westport came flooding back to him: the demons that played in the fringes of his vision had suddenly taken on the ugly face of the man he butchered like a pig. He could still hear the sickening crunch of his skull collapsing inwards. Before he noticed that he had even drawn it, he now walked with his hand clenched tightly around the leather-bound hilt of his axe, the blade gleaming wetly in the fickle light of noon that tried to push its way through the mist. Although there was some life in the districts before, the slums seemed as if they had ceased to breathe eons ago, now reduced to houses that slouched like standing corpses, slowly eaten away by flies and moss. But then, Ramund heard something. It was the snorting of a horse.

His nerves must have been getting the better of him, for at the sound of the snorting horse, he snapped his gaze towards it as if ready to strike something down. That, however, quickly proved unnecessary. Although the mist hampered much of his vision, he could make out the inky black silhouette of a steed, down one of the muddy alleys. His heart began to thump in his chest. It seemed he had finally come across the vulture's nest. His grip on his axe grew tighter, so tight he could hear the leather squeak, even though he tried to be as silent as possible, as he stalked his way forward. Coming closer, he saw that the black steed was tied to a small wooden post, outside one of the leaning, drowsy homes, this one with an upper story that had collapsed unto itself. The horse looked at him with wide, glimmering eyes, while idly munching on a mouthful of hay. He approached the house with wary steps, but he feared that not only his weight, but the mud as well would ruin any attempts of stealth. His jaw clenched, and he couldn't tell the difference between sweat and mist droplets on his skin any longer. The curtains of the windows were drawn, allowing no one to peer inside, but when he leaned forward and put an ear to the door, he could hear footsteps. And only one pair of it. Whose was it, he wondered? The rider's? And if so, why was Rose not standing too? Cruel images flashed through his mind, taunting him, angering him. It was with little thought that he gripped the doorknob, and hurled the door open.

“Rose!” was the first thing that spewed from his mouth, but he couldn't even hear it himself over the clamor of the door slamming against the wall on the other side. He barged through the human-sized door, much to big for it and nearly tearing off some of the doorway in his wake. Had the door been locked, he would surely have torn the hinges right off too. However, all of his anger, all of his battle fervor suddenly fell dead, as he saw what awaited him on the other side.

“...Ramund?” Rose's voice was soft but curious, her eyes just as so. Ramund blinked a little, suddenly realizing that he may have been jumping to quite a few conclusions here. What awaited him on the other side was little but two people, one of them his dear friend Rose, sitting around a small table, sharing a cup of tea. The room here was quite small and humble, seemingly consisting of little but a kitchen for the kettle and a table for the cups. A painful silence ensued, as he looked upon the stranger.

“An acquaintance of yours?” the stranger asked, gilded yellow eyes moving between Rose and Ramund. His voice was sweet as summer, every word spoken with a strange sense of sophistication, even in that short sentence. He was a rather tall man, well of age too, with a strikingly expensive attire of black velvet and silver thread. A sharp goatee stood like a dagger from his chin, and his hair seemed as if it was combed a thousand times every morning, glistening with gel as well. His skin was like porcelain, so white Ramund wondered if this man had ever seen sunlight before.

“You could say that.” Rose continued with a tired sigh, her eyes moving back to Ramund. Ramund stood there in silence as he felt Rose's bitter glare dig into him “Why did you come looking for me? Did you not see my note?”

“I did, and that's the exact reason why I did come looking for you!” Ramund swiftly retorted, his axe still in his hand, confusion welling in his eyes as they moved between Rose and the stranger “You don't know what's good for you, Rose. Especially not deciding to ride off with darkly clad strangers!” his voice was raised as he stabbed a finger in the stranger's direction. But to that, the stranger only gave a chuckle.

“Oh, I see how this is. Pardon me, I should have introduced myself the moment you tore my door off its hinges.” Ramund looked over his shoulder, and true enough, there the door lay, ripped from its frame. He quickly looked back to the stranger, and saw a friendly smile shape on his porcelain face, a velvet-draped hand extended “Please. I am Theodor, lord of House Umbral. And you?”

Ramund's tongue had been paralyzed. In fact, it felt as if most of him had been paralyzed. He had to turn that name over a few times in his head, going through inner archives, trying to make sense of it all. He stared for uncomfortably long at Theodor's pale features, seeing the coming of age and the wisdom that it bore. He looked down at the extended hand, calm and steady in its velvet drapes, seemingly not startled at all despite the huge man that had just torn down his door. In embarrassed silence, Ramund sheathed his axe, and gently shook Theodor's hand.

“That's better.” Theodor said with a smile, his own hand completely engulfed by Ramund's “I would offer you a seat, but I fear the chairs aren't made for someone of your... caliber.”

“It is alright. I am comfortable on my own two feet.” Ramund said, humbly so. He looked between Rose and Theodor, seeing the hospitality in Theodor's eyes, but the hostility in Rose's. He knew that she really did not want him coming for her. But she meant too much for that, by now.

“I have so many questions.” Ramund said, looking back at Theodor.

“And I think I may know a few of them already.” Theodor's honeyed voice spilled through his smiling lips, carved to sweet perfection, a strange kindness yet steely authority in every word “You had imagined that I, Theodor Umbral, lord of House Umbral, would own a home a bit more... grand, than this little shack, hm?” He asked, his soft hazel stare looking back at Ramund “In which case, you were correct. This is not my home. This is not even my district.” He poured up another cup of tea for Rose, despite her not having asked for one “My manor—and the rest of my family—-is located safely up in the noble district, where my kind belong. This?” he gestured loosely around the rotting shack, the moldy walls speckled with lichen “This is where I go, when I have guests I would not want the public to know of.” he smiled at Rose “Not that I don't enjoy your company, Rose dear, all I am saying is that if it was known that I picked up fainted women from the roads every time I went for a ride, my reputation would diminish significantly. It is all part of the game, you must remember. And we nobles do love playing the game.”

“From what I hear, it is more of an obligation, no?” Ramund asked, trying to seem a bit more comfortable in this newly-revealed company, but keeping a wary eye on Theodor nonetheless “This so-called 'game' is not something one simply joins, after all. It is something one is born into, be one of finer blood.”

“All too true.” Theodor curled his fingers around his cup of tea, pale lips sipping at it—he didn't seem to mind the burn “Some despise it, some try to distance themselves from it... but people like myself—-we learn to enjoy it. It is a delicate matter of seeming as presentable in face of every situation, as calm and collected as possible, while trying to rob the other side of the very same. It is because of this that I cannot reveal my little... encounter with your friend here.” he said, gesturing kindly to Rose, offering her a sweet smile while doing so.

Ramund turned his eye on Rose, who seemed quite content about it all. She sat back in her chair around the table, a half-full cup of tea before her and a satisfied look on her face. She said nothing, though. She looked at Theodor with a viper's stare; something Ramund had not seen in a long time, and something he had hoped not to see again. Perhaps Theodor did not know her well enough to see, but Ramund stared right into her and saw some deeper agenda, the dubious glimmer of ulterior motives. There was something on her mind, though he could not for the life of him tell what. Their gazes met for a brief second, and in it he saw poison.

“My lord...” Ramund looked back at Theodor, and figured it was best to address him formally, if only to seem polite “...I spoke to a guardsman, by the gates. A concerned man for certain, his mind poisoned with paranoia-—he spoke of how the sanctuary is in a time of turmoil. I hate to disrupt your tea-party with such things, but I deem you the best qualified person I've yet to meet, who might know more about these kinds of things.”

Theodor seemed to go quiet for a moment. His smile slowly dwindled, a darkness overcoming him, making Ramund slightly regret having asked that question. He put his teacup down, and sighed a little “Indeed... that is what we Umbrals do: know things. It is what we have always done, in all these years. We are the keepers of secrets, knowledge our trade-—our religion, even! So you're right, dear Mjaln. I am the best qualified person to answer that question.” His yellow gaze rolled back up to Ramund “I take it you are familiar with the Zakadievs?”

Ramund hesitated for a moment, but shook his head “Not enough to boast, no. I know what they are, how they have come here, but I could not recite every member of the family, if that is what you wish of me.”

Theodor snorted “I don't, worry not. Not that the task would be all that daunting, though. The Zakadievs are great in power, but few in numbers. And as of recently, they are one less than usual.” he looked down into his tea again, great contemplation and concern in his porcelain expression “Their youngest son, Matvey Zakadiev, was recently abducted. It is a great scandal and controversy that has sent all five houses into discord, constantly arguing about what must be done, who must be punished. However, in all this mess, there is some sense of clarity... you see, the Zakadievs are very careful with their children, well aware of the discrimination and hatred they might face in this foreign world that they have washed ashore on. So they have placed magical runes in the sleeping rooms of their children, designed to record any unwanted guests. And merely a few nights ago, the night that little Matvey disappeared... they did.” he reached out for a sugar cube, dropping it in his tea.

“Anton, lord of House Cercy, was the face the runes captured. He pleads innocent, of course, but the runes do not lie. House Cercy has been quite sharp-tongued and sometimes even racist against the Zakadievs, ever since they washed ashore and introduced themselves to this wide new world. It is a great controversy, of course, but if you ask me... I'm honestly not that surprised at all. All I hope for is that he not killed the poor boy too.”

Ramund, in fact, wasn't surprised either. He had seen the vice of abduction in the distance far before this; this was simply confirmation of his suspicions and fears. However, was did surprise him, was who the culprit was. He was no expert on the lore of the five houses, but he knew that House Cercy was a mercenary conglomerate, trading in manpower from all four corners of the world. If this truly was work of the Cercy house, Moonby Sanctuary was in a far bleaker darkness than he had first anticipated. He had seen these things happen before... and they never ended well.

“Let us pray for his safety.” Ramund responded softly, a curled finger poised at his lips, a gesture of divine petition “These are indeed dark days for the noble world, when men in power resort to such wickedness. Thank you for your time, my lord... and thank you for bringing my friend to safety. We were all quite concerned.” he looked to Rose, a look of anticipation, words silent where words were unnecessary “Rose?”

Rose put her tea-cup down, and smiled at Theodor. She rose from her chair and gave him a nod of appreciation “I'm not sure what I would have done without you, my lord. Death by the cold and wet is an undesirable one, to say the least.”

“That it is.” Theodor sipped at his tea again, but put it aside and stood as Rose did—-in finer society, men always rose when women did, after all “I have seen it all too many times, but I am glad this did not add to the pile. Safe travels, my friends.” his black velvet swayed as he bowed, and both Ramund and Rose bowed right back. Ramund turned around to open up the door, but he had forgotten what a mess he had left mere minutes ago. In silence, he and Rose took their leave, Theodor beginning to clean up the table behind them.

The house had been no good at shelter, the same icy fingers of mist in there was there was out there. Rose and Ramund trudged down the muddy road of the slum with quiet tongues for a while, the only noise being that of the mud sucking and sloshing in wake of their steps. But finally, when the end of the slums could be seen in the farthest fringes of the shrouding mist, Ramund broke the silence.

“You have something on your mind, Rose.” he said, hands resting on the pommels of his axes, eyes straight forward “I saw it in your eyes. You were no maiden in distress, were you?”

Even in the corner of his eyes, Ramund could see the crude smirk that grew on Rose's face “To begin with, I might have been. But I would gladly have remained a maiden in distress, if he was just a stranger. But I could smell he wasn't. I could smell the perfume, the rich velvet, the greed. All the scents were there. There were a few nobles in Nightweald too, and they smelled no different. You could tell how coin was their language, and they spoke it fluently. But I don't blame Lord Umbral for it... greed is in his blood. He can't help it, nor can any of the other velvet-draped rats sitting on thrones, playing their game of lies and intrigue.”

This time, Ramund looked down at her as they walked “So you played along, took on the role of the helpless maiden, to gain his favor. You are more devious than I thought, Rose.” Ramund said, smiling too.

“Don't flatter me.” Rose said, her smirk suddenly dwindling “I'll be honest and say that it wasn't all my game... I had my reasons to leave that note, to flee the camp, to fall asleep in the rain and mud. It was not before I was already on Theodor's horse that I realized my chance.”

Ramund kept a gaze lingering on Rose, watching her expression suddenly change like a mime abruptly switching masks. A silence followed briefly, lingering in the moment where they left the slum district and trod unto steadier roads. He looked at her, and saw that perhaps he was not welcome on this subject—-and he left it at that. The silence grew between the two, as they continued inwards, deeper into the city. Slowly, the city woke up, more faces showing themselves on the streets, more shops turning their 'closed' signs to 'open'. And soon enough, the city of Moonby Sanctuary stood proud before them, as the mist began to fade.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 3
And again, DeviantArt felt that the chapter was too large, so I've decided to cut it up in two, as per usual. Hope you enjoyed! And thanks for reading, as always! :)

PS. if you liked what you read, I'd love some feedback - and critique too! If there are things you think I could improve on, feel free to point them out; I'm a big boy, and can handle that kinda stuff, don't you worry. And of course, if you really liked what you read, do recommend it to your friends as well!


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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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That1PersonYouForgot 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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