The dawn had broken, and Rose had sought shelter from the rain. Huddled underneath the linen canopy of an abandoned tobacco boutique, she sat upon the stairs and watched the puddles grow larger. It was quite the impressive downpour, and she had been lucky to find shelter in time. She saw all the thousands upon thousands of ripples in the puddles, and how the world seemed to disappear behind the thick curtain of rain. It was like seeing the horizon disappear behind trees, as you went deeper into the forest. She saw how the gilded light of dawn came through in brief winks, slanted pillars upon the wet granite road, but the clouds would always conquer. They had a tendency of doing so, it seemed. She had wandered the streets for quite a while now, restless in this town of filth and murder. Sitting on the front porch of the abandoned tobacco boutique had allowed her both the luxury of shelter, and the privilege of seeing drunk men run. It was a strange sight, seeing them cover their heads with stray newspapers, thinking it might make a difference. But they were all soaked nonetheless. She, however, had gotten away with little but a nip of wetness on her skin, and the white linen beneath her leather guards.
However, it wasn't the rain nor the odd sight of running drunkards that filled her mind, but something else. She sat with her knees against her chest, her arms wrapped around her shins as she clung to her own body heat. She hadn't seen Duncan or Ramund for hours on end now, but she didn't mind. She was too obsessed with finding out what her mother had meant, when she sat there on the pier, looking her in the eyes and feeling her presence. She had felt so complete and happy for those minutes they were together, but in her absence, her mother had left a hole of enigma inside. There were so many questions scurrying around in her mind, yapping like imps. “Why can't you remember anything?” they would ask. “Are you insane?” others would say. But most nagging of all were the ones that asked “Who are you?”. For all the hours she spent walking about this lonely, broken town, she could not for the life of her answer that question. She knew her name-—Rosalyn—-but who this Rosalyn was seemed a greater enigma for every time she asked. What could she have done so horribly wrong that her memories had to be removed? Was it something so shameful that she couldn't live with the thought of it? Who was this person that lived the memories that were now nowhere to be found? She stared out into the rain, filling her head with all these thoughts, feeling more and more alienated to herself... all thanks to her mother.
But she didn't blame her. It wasn't her fault. She was certain that she had a good reason for not telling her—-she always had. In this dark world, so full of lies and insanity, it seemed that her mother was the only sane person for her to speak to... and she wasn't even alive. But still the imps in her head demanded answers—answers that she couldn't give. But perhaps, in time, she could, even if only a few of them. It seemed like the only reason she stuck to these two, Duncan and Ramund... in a world like this one, she needed hands to hold unto, until she could walk on her own. She wouldn't admit it to them, and could hardly admit it to herself... but deep down, inside this soul bereft of sanity, she was still the little girl that she couldn't remember ever being.
She slowly stood up from the porch. She had been lingering here long enough, and she figured that the rain wasn't going to quiet down anytime soon. She wasn't ready to go back to the tavern just yet, though. She stared into the rippling curtain of pale rain, and saw no other way out. With a deep breath of the damp air, she moved out into it, and let herself be drenched as she made her way back down to the pier. In the vain hope that her mother might be waiting for her there, she couldn't let the chance slip away.
She didn't run or shelter herself under newspapers like the drunkards that passed her now and then did, but simply strolled through the downpour as if it was not even there. She was already soaked, and she knew it wasn't going to get any worse. Her black hair hung like willow leaves down her cheeks, clinging to them. She was thankful that her leather armor covered her entire chest as well... in the rain, her linen had become uncomfortable transparent, and she wouldn't want to give wandering fools any stupid ideas. She had found herself a little shank as well, while walking about the streets. She held it in her right hand, and saw how the water rippled down the blade. It was a short thing, and rusted all the way through, but at least it looked intimidating. She made sure to stare with it as much as she did with her eyes, every time a drunkard got too close.
After a little while of trudging through the rain, she finally made her way down to the pier. She seemed to be all alone, since most had sought shelter by now. She liked it that way. The winds were hard and ripping, flinging the droplets everywhere and adding a shrill howl to the noise of rain clattering against wooden roofs and granite roads. Her clothes clung to her body like glue at this point, and her head hung slightly with droplets dripping off her nose and her chin, but she tried to seem like she didn't mind it. In truth, she hated the rain. It was wet and uncomfortable, and she wasn't used to it. In Nightweald, the trees would always soak up all the rain, their leaves catching it before it could even reach the ground. It was one of the things she liked about The Wastelands too, together with the silence. Rain was as rare as victory... thankfully.
However, while the pier seemed utterly empty at first, she caught sight of a figure in the distance; a mere silhouette behind the curtain of rain. Her heart thumped in her chest. Could it really be her? The figure was sitting on the edge of the pier, staring out into the rain, into the ocean below. She couldn't tell face or even gender of the person, but what fool would want to sit here, in this weather, if not her mother? But when she got close enough... she came to realize just what fool this was.
She recognized him by the black, shaggy hair that hung down the sides of his head, and the white vest and denim trousers. Duncan was all too recognizable, even with his hair drenched like this. She stopped up for a moment, and watched him sit there, knowing that he hadn't seen her yet. He seemed oddly... sad. His head hung like burdened by a chain of lead, and his elbows rested on his knees as he stared down into the waters by his feet. His legs dangled over the edge, and it seemed as if his spirit did too. Her curiosity grew. What could have happened that had broken the man like this? She stalked closer, hiding behind a small collection of barrels, but when she heard another familiar voice speak over the clatter of rain, she got her answer.
“Brother... please, you must speak to me about this.” Ramund's voice spoke, and only then did she notice the big man leaning up against a wooden wall, sheltered under the protruding roof of a nearby house. He wasn't as badly soaked as Duncan, but even so, his long, white beard seemed to have collapsed on itself after being thoroughly drenched. His grey ponytail hung as well, now not as proudly up-turned as it had been before. Even his voice seemed to droop.
“Are words really necessary?” Duncan retorted, not even turning to look at Ramund. He was fiddling with an empty bottle of whiskey, turning it over in his grasp a few times “You saw me, all exposed and helpless... what more could I say? I'm addicted. I'm a lost cause.” he let the bottle roll from his grasp and plunge into the water “...I'm not qualified to be your captain, Ramund.”
Rose's eyebrows rose, her interest piqued. So this was what it was all about. Had Ramund finally found out? How... amusing. She edged closer, shrouded by the rain and lingering shadows, not wanting to miss a word of this. Like a predator stalking its prey, she got so close she could almost reach out and touch. Barrels and swaying canopies and piles of trash gave her plenty of opportunity to hide, and here she was, so close to Ramund. She sniffed at him, and she could almost smell his anger... or was it disappointment? They were so alike anyway.
“Perhaps not.” Ramund spoke, words which Rose certainly not had expected “But do you truly see yourself as one, brother? Look into yourself, and at me. Am I but your sergeant to you?”
“Don't be an idiot.” Duncan grumbled back, shooting a cold glance over his shoulder at him-—he too hadn't noticed Rose “I've never seen you as 'but my sergeant'. I'll have you know, when I was still in that haze of drugs, you were the one I was dreaming about. I dreamed about the day we met, there in the gathering tent, where I was to interview you. You gave me such hope, Ramund. Such renewal of spirit, and only by being there. So no. I don't see you as 'but my sergeant'. I see you as the last thread that holds me unto sanity.”
A silence followed afterward. Rose watched with eyes that didn't dare to blink, no matter how much rain got in them. She saw how Ramund remained in silence for a few seconds, looking down upon his captain with sympathy instead of disappointment. He even smelled differently, just like that. How did he do that? How did he switch from contempt to compassion so quickly? She sniffed again, just to make sure, and there it was, the clear and sweet smell of a soft heart. Beneath that hard, battle-torn muscle, was a heart as soft as velvet. She couldn't help but grin.
Ramund quietly pushed himself off the wooden wall, and took a seat beside Duncan. For a few moments of silence he sat there, in the rain, his great legs dangling over the edge and scraping the surface of the water. Rose watched from the shadows as they both sat there, indifferent about the pour. A captain and his sergeant, locked in silence, only broken by the ripping of winds and the clatter of rain. She watched with anticipation, wondering if they were ever going to say anything. Only after a few moments, Ramund did.
“If that is how you see me, brother...” he said, turning a slow glance towards him, hands resting in his own lap with his fingers entwined “...Why did you not tell me sooner? How long have you been keeping this from me? From all of us?”
Duncan shook his head, sighing deeply “Far too long, Ramund. It has been my secret for many years, and not a single live soul but you and Rose know this now. She found me in the streets of Aegon, merely a few days ago, drooling in a dark, dusty alley. I asked her not to tell you... I am glad that she is a woman of her word.” he looked up at him, and Rose couldn't tell if it was rain or tears on his cheeks “I wanted to tell you, Ramund. I really did. But I feared what you might think. That you might see me as lesser, and not the man that was supposed to be your valiant, strong captain. I know that your spirit is strong in itself, but even your kind needs a leader now and then...” his eyes averted to the rippling waters below “...I am truly sorry I couldn't be that leader for you.”
Rose stared at the two, sitting there, and she wondered if Ramund was being silent, or if he was speaking in such a low tone that she couldn't hear him over the rain. He seemed to follow Duncan's gaze into the water of the harbor, and Rose considered creeping closer; but she was close enough already. She didn't want to risk being noticed. This was too precious to spoil.
“I must confess, brother...” Ramund continued, head bowed in the rain “...you are not the same to me anymore. I will not lie to you. In seeing you like that, back at the brothel, all slurred and broken by the poison in your veins, I could not help but feel disappointed.” his eyes fell to Duncan “...but I believe you had anticipated this already.”
“It's just a damn shame you had to find out this way.” Duncan sneered, either at no one in particular, or at himself “I didn't want you to see me... like that. Even I feel sick to my stomach when I see those other addicts lie with a whore in their laps, hookah smoke in their lungs, and dragon tears in their veins.” he lifted a hand, palm upwards “That's what they call it. 'Dragon tears'—-don't ask me why. It doesn't look like tears, and I'm damn sure it didn't come from a dragon. But, regardless of what it consists of, it throws the consumer back in time to relive old memories as if they were there themselves... usually good memories, but there can be bad trips as well. Either way, you relive old memories, but if you don't do as you remember them, you wake up from your trip with a horrible headache.” his gaze climbed up to Ramund's face, looking into his eyes “That's why it is so popular amongst soldiers. We want to feel like we're still frolicking in the tulip fields as little children, splashing puddles, or whatever we did in brighter days. We want to forget about war and all its dreads, and just for a few minutes, be somewhere else. You can understand that, can't you?”
Ramund seemed hesitant to answer, and with good reason. He looked away, but Rose couldn't do such a thing. This was too interesting. She heard him speak with a low and reluctant voice “I suppose I can. But for what price? A lifetime of addiction? Is that really a pain you are willing to go through, for merely a few minutes of peace?”
“Actually, the drug usually lasts hours rather than minutes-—but like a dream, it feels much shorter.” Duncan said in quite a matter of fact way “But regardless... no. No I'm not, Ramund, and I swore that this would be my last needle. I have taken hundreds of needles before this, but it seems the gods wanted you to see me on my last one.” he gave Ramund a slightly puzzled look “By the way, might I ask what you were doing in a brothel?”
Ramund shook his head quickly “I am sure you wouldn't think me for being a man that indulges in places like those, and you would be right. I was looking for you, of course.”
“And a brothel was your first choice? Ramund, I—-“
“No. It wasn't.” Ramund interrupted, giving him a sour look “It took me hours on end to find you, but with a little asking around, I finally did. I was worried sick for you, brother. You weren't in your room, and I thought you had fallen into some ill, undeserved fate...” he looked away, shame and disappointment filling his eyes “...I fear I may have been correct.”
Duncan snorted, sneering. For a moment, there was a spark of anger between them; Rose could feel it clear as firelight “You can spare me your passive-aggressive snaps, Ramund. I get the point. Hadn't you considered that, just maybe, I was just out for a walk? If you hadn't been so worried, this could all have ended up much nicer.”
Ramund's eye twitched in frustration as he looked back at Duncan “You wish me to stop caring for you? Is that it? Brother, you wound me. I was worried for you, not because I thought you could not defend yourself on these streets—-and even less that you were a soul lost to intoxication-—but because I know that danger is on its way... and this time, it is not the demons.”
Duncan looked puzzled, suddenly seeming to forget his worries about drugs and Ramund's disgust “Not the demons? Please do not tell me we've got another army of something on its way...”
“Not an army.” Ramund shook his head, his beard swaying each time he did “It may be foul, but not so foul. Hark, Duncan, for I fear I have sinned tonight as much as you have. Would you believe me if I told you, that I have taken a life not deserved of taking?”
Rose's heart jumped a beat as she heard this. Her mind went into hyperfocus, the clattering of rain and the howling of winds suddenly seeming so distant, and the world seemed to slow. What was this talk of Ramund killing a man? Her curiosity took over completely, and she stalked even closer; she was at a dire risk of being noticed now, but she had to hear this.
“I... I'm sorry?” Duncan blinked in disbelief, clearly baffled by this “Ramund, what have you—-“
“I will explain.” Ramund interrupted “And maybe you will understand why this has happened. See, I cannot be fully angry with you, brother, as I seem to have fallen as far as you have. On venture to speak with and convince the mayor to flee this doomed town and bring his people with him, I met a woman. I saw her be cast into the puddles of the street, chased out of a house by a small, broken man. I thought it apt to defend her, and so I did, but I fear I may have made foes in the process. The woman—-who turned out to be a harlot-—is resting at the inn as we speak, behind a locked door. She is safe, but chances are that we are not.”
“Wait, hold up-—you killed the man, simply for throwing a harlot out his door?” Duncan seemed like he could hardly believe what he was hearing.
“Let me finish.” Ramund continued, his voice dripping with ominous regret and darkness “After failing to convince the mayor, I found myself ambushed by this very same man on the way back. He had brought two of his friends, and it seemed there was no way to avoid a strife. So a strife it was. I snapped the knee inwards of one of his friends, scared the other one off, but in the heat of battle, I brought an axe to the little man's head.” he sighed deeply, not even daring to look at Duncan, probably afraid he might see the shame in his eyes “The sound of cracking bone still echoes within me. But when I did it, I saw not a man, but a demon. I saw a wild trooper, hungry for blood... and I put him down like one. I slew the little man like merely another measly demon, and for a few moments, it even felt good. It was not until he slumped off my chest and bled into the puddles that I realized what I had done.”
Duncan seemed stifled. He looked upon Ramund as if it was not even him he was looking at. He opened his mouth several times to speak, and Rose watched in anticipation, waiting for him to say something. But out of all the times he tried to speak, only the silent sound of astonishment fell out his mouth. But when the words finally came, Rose could hardly hear them, even in this state of utmost attention. He smelled afraid. Very afraid.
“Ramund, I...” he stuttered, hushed as if fear had laid a hand over his mouth. Ramund said nothing either, but not in fear as much as it was in acceptance for Duncan's judgment. Duncan's eyes darted about, down to the waters, to the wet streets, back at Ramund. He rubbed his forehead with his index finger and thumb, a look on his face that seemed to sigh 'Oh Ramund...'. He took a deep breath, and shook off his relent.
“See what we have become, Ramund.” he said, finally able to push out the words, these sorrowful and broken by doubt “This could all have been so peacefully... different. I, an addict. You...” he said nothing, and Rose saw his mouth shape the word 'murderer', but he couldn't make himself say it. He licked his lips, and continued “I can't blame you for what you have done, Ramund. I can't, knowing that I am just as bad, if not worse. What you did... I know you could not have done it with will and murder in your heart. It was an accident, Ramund. And sometimes, people die in those.”
Rose slinked away, smiling. She looked upon Ramund with new eyes, and saw traces of madness inside of him. It always started like this... first, an accident. Then, the real thing. She wanted to chuckle, but she didn't want to be noticed. Ramund, oh Ramund... you've come a long way.
She walked away from the harbor, the rain still pouring. Her mind was full of what she had just found out, and for a moment, she had almost forgotten about her mother. Her hand clenched around the hilt of her rusted shank, and eyed every man that passed her on the streets. Her mind wafted around in ideas of this new and more exciting Ramund, but she snapped back to reality every time someone grew close, running past her in the rain. At this point, she didn't care about the downpour. There was something more important on her mind.
She came to a halt, as she looked to her right. She noticed another abandoned house, hidden away in a little alley, merely a stone throw away. She looked down the dark alley where the gilded light of dawn could not reach, and saw a sign standing out from it, all covered in moss. She couldn't read most of it, but it didn't matter. She could read the word 'barber', and that was all she needed. A thought ran through her mind. She looked about herself, down the streets around her, and into the alley again where the tall wooden buildings were tied together by laundry strings, and smelled like pig shit. After a few moments of consideration, she made her way down into the musty alley, and stepped into the abandoned barber shop... she needed the council of a certain someone.
Stepping inside, she could almost feel the lingering spirits of dead spiders in the air. Cobwebs from every corner, every crevasse, leaving nothing without a silken cloak of white upon it. It smelled old and forgotten in here, more so than the rest of this miserable town. It was dark, here where the light could not reach. It was cold... and so very dead.
There were cabinets and shelves and wardrobes here and there, but all of them had their drawers torn out and scattered out all over the dusty, moldy floor. Rose kicked gently at a small pile of fallen cobweb, and an old and rusty pair of scissors came sliding out. This place seemed like burglars had long since gotten in here and taken everything that was of worth. Both windows of the little barber shop were shattered and the lock was broken open, leaving Rose with no troubles at all to make her entry. A thousand fingers of rain thrummed on the roof, and she saw it slip through the cracks in droplets from the ceiling here and there.
There was a desk too, probably where customers so long time ago would come to order a haircut. Rose could imagine this place to be thriving, so full of customers, a well-dressed clerk at the desk, pretty barbers' girls tending to the guests. But now it was merely a sad vestige of its former self. Just the way she liked it.
There were four large chairs, expensively cushioned with satin pillows, facing the left wall. Rose felt the cushions, and saw how spiders crawled out from the cracks and cuts in the fabric. No doubt they had laid eggs inside. Still, she wondered why the robbers didn't take these... pillows like these could undoubtedly have been the most expensive thing in this place. Perhaps the people of Westport just didn't need pillows as much as they needed barbering equipment. Rose looked at the wall the chairs were facing, and first then noticed the large mirror that covered the entire thing, but was covered in so much dust and cobweb that it seemed to blend in with the rest of this forlorn place. Her heart beat a little harder in her chest now, and she took a deep breath to calm herself down as she approached the mirror. Her gentle fingers fell upon it, feeling the dust at her fingertips. It was impossible to see anything in the mirror with this thick layer of dust cloaking it. In a single swift motion of her hand, she swept away a great deal of the dust, and left behind what seemed almost like a clawing wound upon the mirror. She saw herself in it, and looked deep into those yellow eyes of hers. But she didn't smile. Her mirror image, however, did.
“Hi Rose.” the image said, raising a hand in greeting “It's been a while.”
“It has.” Rose droned, not caring to be polite nor friendly. She couldn't be friendly towards someone who wasn't her friend—not even, in this case, herself. Looking into those eyes of her own made her sick to her stomach, but she couldn't let her reluctance get the better of her now.
“So why break the silence?” the mirror image inquired, folding its arms and cocking its head slightly “I would be glad if you just came to speak to me... but that isn't it, is it?”
Rose shook her head “Not this time, me. Not this time.” she brushed a little more dust off the mirror to get a better look at herself; she had made a hole, just large enough for her head to be inside “I need some advice... and with my mother gone, you're the only one I can speak to.”
“No, you are the only one you can speak to.” the mirror image jested, grinning to flash that white set teeth “But that's sort of the same, isn't it? Well then, Rose... what can you help you with?”
Rose ignored her mirror image's stupid sense of humor, and got straight to the point “I am feeling sick in this place, but I can't leave without Ramund and Duncan. As much as I hate to admit it, I don't think I can last on my own, let alone find my way.”
“Oh?” her mirror image's eyebrow rose in sudden surprise “Confessing weakness now, are we? Rose, these days sure have been hard on you! Are sure you're alright?”
“Of course I'm not.” Rose snapped, snarling angrily “I'm insane-—don't you remember? Look, I just need a way to convince Ramund and Duncan to leave this place, either by accomplishing what they came for, or making it clear that Westport is doomed.”
“And you want me to help you with that?” the mirror image chuckled a little “Rose, you misunderstand something. I can't tell you things that you don't already know. I'm just a manifestation of your introspection—not a foreign entity. The best I can do is bring up possibilities that you already know are possibilities, but won't accept... for whatever reasons.”
Rose's heart beat even faster; what was she talking about? Concern pooled in her stomach, and she narrowed her eyes in suspicion, speaking warily “Like... like what?”
“Well...” her mirror image inclined her head, her smile disappearing as she gestured over her shoulder “...there's that man in the darkness, for one.”
She quickly snapped around, her eyes widening and her pupils narrowing to pierce through the darkness. But even if they didn't, even the blindest of eyes would be able to recognize that serpentine, shrewd grin that was like the stroke of a white paintbrush in the black. Her heart thumped harder and harder, her blood running icy cold, her lips sneering in disgust. But the grin wouldn't disappear. And that cool, canny voice made it no better.
“Rose, my dear...” he always said, regardless if she wanted it or not. Rose looked quickly over her shoulder, into the mirror, and saw nothing; not even herself. She could only see the outline of that exaggerated top hat, and the white smile. She heard him take a long breath of his nose, and sigh in relief “...How I've missed the sweet smell of you.”
Rose turned to confront the man, trying to be brave, but her voice betrayed her, telling tales of fear in her tone “Please... I didn't ask for this.”
“Oh, but you did.” the elf insisted as he moved closer, his colorful attire becoming clear in the darkness, draped around his bony, slender figure. His leather shoes clicked on the floor and his cane tapped as he moved closer. Rose felt his presence almost like she had felt the presence of that demon in The Wilderness “Your voice of reason might not, but my sweetling... that is not you.” Rose retreated backwards but was cornered against the mirror, sweat rippling down her shape as the elf's grin grew ever larger “It never was, was it? Come now, Rose... deep down, you know that you want me here. Is this not true?”
Rose snapped, baring her teeth and clenching her fists “Back off, creep. You've got nothing that interests me.”
In sheer mockery, the elf uttered a lighthearted guffaw, throwing back his head “Ho ho, is that a fact, my dear? I fear I may have to prove you wrong yet again, sweet Rose. I have a menagerie of things that interest you... if only you would come play with me, I could show you an entire world of things...” Rose felt his cold, gangly hand caress her chin “...Just for you.”
Rose batted away the hand, quickly slithering away into the darkness like a frightened lizard, grasping for whatever she could find; her hand immediately fell to the shank at her belt, not hesitating to draw it. The elf now stood between her and the door, and she knew there was no way out. It was fight or flight, and flight seemed to be option here.
“Rose, don't be silly...” the elf inclined his head, resting both hands on his cane—he just couldn't stop smiling “If you wanted to kill me, you would have do so many years ago. You couldn't kill me as much as you couldn't kill your own mother.”
“Don't you dare bring her into this!” Rose hissed, lashing out after him with her shank, but the blade met only thin air. The elf didn't even flinch.
“Sweet Rose, if you would just listen to me for once, maybe it wouldn't have to go this way...” the elf moved closer again, raising his cane to gently pry away Rose's shank. Adrenaline set Rose's blood on fire, but she found herself lowering her shank even so, as if put down by some godly hand. She dropped it, and she saw it fall to the floor, digging into the wood with the blade downwards. Her breath was heavy and scared as she stared into the elf's eyes... there was just something about his jeweled stare that could subdue even the wildest of beasts.
“Tell me, my dear...” the elf continued, moving ever closer, still smiling “...Why do you want to go back to Nightweald? Why so eager to return to the birthplace of your own misery?”
Rose cringed at the elf's question, and she knew that he knew that it was absolutely none of his business. But even so, with those eyes mesmerizing her... she could do nothing but answer “I...” she looked away, shaking her head “I don't. I just don't want to be here anymore.”
“Rose, you could never lie to me.” The elf reached out and gently turned her face towards him again, his gloved fingers soft and careful like touching a piece of fragile, invaluable jewelry “You like it here... mostly. How long have we been together now, hm? Can we even count the years? I know how much you hate all the drunkards and all the filth... but you do love seeing them die, don't you?” at this, Rose took in a sharp breath, her cheeks flaring up in a deep red blush. The elf smirked widely “Ahh, you do, you do. You love seeing all the dead beggars on the streets; the way the rats peel away at their flesh, and how they died the way they lived-—with a bottle of whiskey in their hands. You like the poetry of it all, don't you? The justice... the cleansing. In death, the corpse of a beggar is as much worth as the corpse of a nobleman... for in the end, they will still only be that: a corpse.” he leaned in closer, whispering into her ear with the tongue of a snake “...And I can give you so much more.”
Rose's heart raced, her body jittering in a mix of fear and excitement, and while she hated to admit it, she felt so irresistibly... seduced. Her face was a mess of red cheeks and wide eyes, and her words stuttered like a nervous child as she spoke “P-please... just leave me be. I don't want to make decisions I will regret.”
“Ah, but see, that's the thing...” The elf looked deep into her eyes, and she felt as if she couldn't rip her own away from his “...this is the only decisions you will ever make that you will not regret. Death is your drug, my sweetling. You crave it like a fish craves water. So let me be your ocean, sweet Rose. I would much rather see you swim free and happy, than wriggle helplessly on the beaches of bad decisions and promises you cannot keep. Put away this life of heroism, and forget those two fools you've chosen to accompany... you would be so much happier with me, sweet Rose. And all I want from you is your smile.” he slowly took her hand in both of his, gentle as if touching an orchid's petals “So tell me, my dear... what is it you hope to find in Nightweald?”
Rose felt his hands around hers-—the hand that, only a few moments ago, would have run him through with her rusty shank. But now it was limp and dead, whisked away together with the rest of her. She may have been insane before, but only now did she feel as if she had truly lost herself.
“My... my memories.” she stuttered, each word reluctant and spoken as if by a tongue that was not her own “I want my memories back.”
“Ah... and you hope that the dark woods of Nightweald can coax them out for you, is that it?” he inclined his head slightly, close enough as if to kiss “Oh Rose... have you ever thought that, just perhaps, you have lost those memories for a reason?”
She frowned, her lips twisting angrily “More than you could imagine. Not a day goes by where I don't ask myself that question. But I have to know what went wrong... if it was myself who did it, to cover up some heinous act... if it was an accident...” she shook her head quickly “The truth is not important. I just can't live with the emptiness.”
“Is that so?” The elf asked, though obviously rhetorical. He moved away from her, finally giving her some breathing space. She stared at him, her heart still beating like a drum... for a moment she feared and hoped at the same time that, while he was so close, that he would indeed kiss her. But he didn't. And she couldn't figure out if she was disappointed or relieved. She felt as if she was dancing with fire—-the excitement was undeniable, but she knew she would get burned, sooner or later. Still... would she really mind the pain?
“Sweet Rose, perhaps we can come to some agreement for once...” the elf slowly sauntered around the dark, forlorn barber shop, picking up and examining rusty scissors and beholding himself in dusty hand mirrors in turn “You wish to go home... and I wish for you to be happy. Perhaps, if you will let me, we can both get what we want.” he looked back at Rose, those green eyes cutting through the darkness like emerald beacons “I will play your game, Rose. I could go to your friends and kill them so that you may only have me left... but that would not make you happy, would it?” he moved closer again, though stopped a few meters from her, resting his hands on his cane “You were not happy in The Wastelands, my dear-—not even with all the death around you. You wanted... something else. I have tried so many things, my dear, and now I finally know! I would whisk you away to Nightweald myself... but you insist on not leaving those two fools that you accompany. So what does that leave us, Rose?” he leaned closer, tapping his gloved fingers on his cane “We convince them to leave, is that not it? But they will not leave without some incentive... and when one cannot lure—“
“—one must herd.” Rose finished, taking in a deep breath. She figured that she already knew what the elf had in mind, but she had to ask “Tell me what you are thinking. I would hear it with my own ears.”
This time, the elf smiled wider than ever “Ahh, finally you listen! You please me, my dear. You please me very, very much.” he stepped backwards once more, clearing his throat “For you, Rose, I will give you a gift. No, I will summon you a gift! I have a show in mind, and I think you shall quite enjoy it. It will be a play of darkness and blood, and this town will become my stage—-and you, the star of the show. In this town of rabbits, I will let loose a wolf... and you, like a raven in the tree, shall watch them scurry for safety at the smell of their brothers' blood.” he slung up his arms in glory “It will be a marvelous show! The bards will sing of it for years to come... but it is only the beginning. My great carnival is on its way, but I shall give these ladies and gentlemen a little... taste. But don't you worry, my dear. They will have the whole thing soon enough.”
Rose stared at him, as her fears-—and hopes—-were confirmed. In a clash of emotions she stood there, stifled in doubt if she was to object or enjoy. Petrified in conflict, she could only watch as he did what he did. Like bidding an actor onto his stage, he held out his cane towards the darkest shadows of the shop, raising his voice in grandeur.
“Enter the magnificent, the unrivaled, the stupendous... Trestinnnnn Gallowaaaaay!” he shouted, and for a moment Rose thought he was simply raving madness-—but that proved not to be the case. The air seemed to bend and twist like a piece of silk in the wind, and colors began to grow within the darkness. A strange ripping sound filled the room, and Rose felt it-—that very same sensation she had, every time a demon broke through the membrane between worlds. She felt the same stirring in her stomach, the ice in her veins, the haze of her mind-—it was only seconds after that she saw the jagged shape of a demon break through the air itself. Like being born again, the trooper demon tumbled out of the shadows, squealing and screeching and covered in inky slime. Rose watched the demon with wide-eyed fascination... she had seen a demon break through the membrane, but never like this.
“Fresh from the pools of The Netherworld, here he is-—the wolf himself! Rise, Trestin, for I have a task for you.” The elf said as he forced the trooper to its feet with his cane, even though it was swaying and growling as if it had been torn out of a deep slumber “Trestin, I have elected you for a very special quest. In honor of our guest...” he gestured towards Rose, and she felt the demon look at her with bloodshot eyes “...you will kill as many people in this town as you possibly can. Rip them open, smear their innards on the walls; the bloodier, the better! Oh, Trestin, show some excitement-—you are about to become famous! Now, hurry up; I can't keep you in this realm for very long.” he batted the slimy little demon on its backside, and although it complained badly, he forced it out the door.
Rose watched the jagged thing slump outside and slink into the shadows... she could hardly believe this was truly happening. But when she looked at the elf and saw the glorious smile on his face, she knew there was no doubt.
“Well then, sweetling...” he bowed graciously, practiced to impeccability “...Let the show begin.”
Rose opened her mouth to speak, but just as the words were about to leap from her tongue, the elf disappeared. She watched him take off his top hat, and it was as if he disappeared behind it. He swept it around his feet, and just like that, he was swept with it. The hat disappeared into the shadows, and within mere seconds... it was gone.
Rose was left in a silence she wasn't sure if she liked or not, and a situation even more so. She couldn't tell how many deaths she had just risked... how many would die for this? How much blood would be shed? And more importantly... whose blood? Her heart skipped a beat. Did the demon know not to kill Ramund and Duncan? Fear rode her veins again, and her knees felt weak. So many times she had considered killing them herself, yet the thought of seeing them gored against the sidewalk... she felt even more sick than she did when the elf was here. In a rush of anxiety, she ripped her shank from the floor and rushed out, praying to whatever god she could, that she would find Ramund and Duncan before the demon did.
The rain had not ceased yet. The heavens were still weeping, and Rose was beginning to realize why. She felt the rain on her face, soaking her clothes and trickling down her cheeks, but she didn't care. She didn't care as she stepped in muddy puddles, and she didn't even care to raise her shank when she got too close to any passing drunkards. She darted through the streets, through the downpour, through the haze of her own horror. She looked into the alleys, and every time she felt as if she could see the bloodshot eyes of the demon in there. She knew it was in this town, somewhere, on a quest for murder, and it felt as if she would bump into it for each corner she turned. Though the idea of seeing this entire town of bad men and broken souls be torn apart by a wolf in the alleys put an almost sexual lust inside of her, she could not risk it. She could not risk that Ramund or Duncan became prey. There were many people she would want to see dead... but not them. Never them.
She felt the fatigue eat away her strength, burning in her legs, but she couldn't slow down now. She was headed straight for the harbor, but Westport was no little twenty-house village like Retby; it had dozens upon dozens of winding alleys and crooked byways and dead ends, and more than once already she had become lost. And for every minute she wasted, the chance of seeing Ramund and Duncan has bloody, gored lumps of flesh smeared against the house walls seemed greater and greater. The image repeated itself in her mind, over and over, and she could already smell the blood. She could feel it pooling around her ankles, but maybe it was just the rain. She wasn't sure she could tell the difference any longer.
She turned around a corner, and for once, luck was with her. She could see the harbor from here—-or at least one of them. Even through the thick curtain of rain, she could see the masts of great ships swaying in the waves, and she could hear their bells over the endless clatter on the grey roads. She saw how the ocean merged with the land, and how the horizon fused together in a slush of grey, now that the sky was nought but clouds and rain. She stood still for a few moments, and hoped for all in her heart that this was the right harbor. Once realizing she was wasting precious time, she darted down the street, and made for the waters.
But as she arrived, her luck ran short. This was indeed the correct harbor, but Ramund and Duncan were nowhere to be seen. She looked over the pier, saw where she had sat before with her mother, and saw nothing but lonely dinghies and fisherman's boats. Her head snapped in either direction, quickly seeking for anyone she could ask if they had seen a Mjaln walk by, but she was all alone. A stray dog whimpered as it moved through the rain, and for a moment she saw herself killing it in sheer frustration. She imagined herself thrusting her rusty shank into its bony frame and peeling it apart, blood mixing with the rain-—then she snapped back to reality. She watched the dog scurry away, and she shook her head. With a growl of anger, she jumped into her stride again, this time heading for the last place she could imagine they'd be.
Through wet districts and broken alleys she made her way, climbing up on winding wooden scaffolding to save time by forgetting the streets. Atop the ramshackle roofs she ran, feeling the wood give way under each step, feeling the wind rip in her linens and her black hair. She climbed higher and higher, her heart racing as much as she was, and from up here she could see almost all of this squalid place. She could see churches with bell towers, manors of the rare and occasional noble who decided to settle down in Westport, and all the harbors. All of it was covered in the thick, pouring rain, but though it was a sight to behold, she had her eyes only on one thing. She could see it from here, and the smoke rising from its two chimneys. She slid down the side of the house she was upon, landing with a thump upon the derelict scaffolding, before throwing herself into a puddle in the streets. Down amongst the rats and beggars and drunks again, she spared no time for hesitation, and hurried around a corner, through an alley, down a short tunnel... and there it was. The Corny Crusader.
For a moment, she felt relieved when she saw the name arch over the doorway, but when she saw the actual doorway, all relief gave way for horror. She could smell it for certain now—the reek of blood was no longer a figment of her imagination. In the fickle light of an overshadowed sky she saw it too, spilling out the open entrance. She stood for a moment, petrified as she looked upon the door that had been utterly ripped apart, as if broken by a rhinoceros... or worse. She was too late. Too late! Her teeth clattered like the rain and her hand tightened around her shank as she marched forward, her head full of anger and her heart full of fear. But no fear would keep her from shredding that demon if it had as much as bared its fangs at Ramund or Duncan.
The blood that spilled out the front door was nothing compared to what was inside. Her feet splashed in it, the entire floor covered in red, and the walls too. Her bloods were alight with adrenaline, her head a fuzz of fear and excitement—-all this blood was so damnably distracting. She saw it everywhere; on the walls, on the ceiling, on her shoes... she felt it spill through her toes, still warm. Her body vibrated, her hot breath quick and fearful, her cheeks flaring as red as the blood that surrounded her. Her eyes soared over the gruesome scene, as she stood here, in the middle of it all.
Men and women alike lay sprawled across the place, lying on the table with limbs ripped clean off, and others with headless bodies pushed up against the walls. There was not a single body left clean and whole; each and every one of them had chunks of flesh bitten off by monstrous teeth, and they were all left with a look of horror upon their faces. There was a loose head at Rose's feet, one which she thankfully could not recognize—but the way the face of this poor fool man still seemed to scream 'save us' awoke something foul deep down in her. Even without a body, his expression still cried for salvation, but there was no salvation in store for this man. Not even the barkeep had been spared.
Rose struggled to breathe as she tore her eyes away from the mutilated head, her attention caught by the sound of gnashing in the back of the room. Her heart skipped a beat, and she startled slightly. The demon was still here. She swallowed, as if trying to swallow her fears, but they lingered like a tenacious parasite that refused to let go. She moved forward on weak steps, feeling how the floor was slick with all the blood, and she was afraid she might slip. Walking across the main room of the inn was like walking through a museum of bloodshed and merciless butchering. To her left, a barmaid with half of her face gashed and broken, her skull collapsed like the shell of a coconut. To her right, a drunkard man with his stomach ripped open, and his guts already eaten. Rose was stifled by the gruesome display of murder, and in that moment, she was reminded just what exactly Hell had to offer. What that elf in the top hat had to offer. And this was only the beginning.
She looked upon all the murder, and she knew she had to hate it. She knew it would be best if she felt sick, and she knew that any other man would. If she were anyone else she would have vomited up her stomach by now, seeing how there was almost nothing left unblemished by the demon's rampage. But she was not anyone else. She was Rose. She was the only one who felt aroused by the sight of relentless slaughter, and this was a burlesque show for her. It was a present wrapped in gore with death making a little bow tie on the top, and leaving a little note reading 'For Rose'. Or maybe it wrote 'For My Sweetling', considering who stood behind this gift of bloodshed and vice. While she felt like bursting into tears, she also felt a laughter begging to burst out, but she had to hold it in. She could not let herself be whisked away by the elf's pretty gifts and honeyed words. She was better than that.
“H-hey! Demon!” Rose raised her voice to the sound of gnashing teeth, hidden behind the bar desk; she could see shadows moving in the light of the lonely lantern that hung from the ceiling, and the occasional spray of blood from ravenous feasting “I'm talking to you!”
She startled slightly as the demon-—the so-called 'Trestin Galloway'-—perked his head up from behind the desk, dozens of strips of flesh hanging from his jagged maw. He stared at Rose with bloodshot eyes, wide and never blinking. For seconds on end they stared at one another, Rose having stopped in her tracks, now standing atop the torn body of another bar patron. The smell of blood filled her nose like wax, and she saw some of it dripping from the ceiling as well. Trestin cocked his large head at her with curiosity in his pale eyes, while slurping in another strip of flesh. Rose's tongue felt as if it filled her entire mouth as she tried to speak, and for every word she tried to speak, she just ended up whimpering instead. She held out her shank at Trestin, her hand shaking and her mind on fire. In all this time she had entered the building, she didn't think she had blinked even once.
“Show me.” she finally managed to spit out, though having to swallow again after speaking “Show me who you've got there.” for a moment she regretted saying those words in horror that Trestin might roll Duncan's decapitated head over the floor to bump at her toes. The demon seemed a little confused at first, but when Rose raised her voice and shouted “Show me, damnit!”, he didn't hesitate. She wanted to close her eyes and just run away, perhaps jump in the harbor and drown herself, but her body didn't do that. Her eyes didn't close and her legs didn't run... she just stood there, as Trestin flung the body of a woman up on the desk for her to see. She was dressed in a red corset, her face powdered pink, and her hair put up with needles and string. A harlot by the looks of it, and while she still had all her limbs and her head, her entire chest had been burst open and her innards ripped out, as if Trestin had been a young boy at his birthday and the woman's chest had been the wrapping of his birthday present. Rose stared at the foul scene, but let out a little sigh in relief, thanking whomever she had to thank for this not being Duncan or Ramund.
“Alright, demon... your job here is done.” Rose looked Trestin right in his lidless eyes, taking a few steps closer. The demon stared up at her, he being a few heads shorter than her, but still armed with blades as long as her legs. Rose breathed heavily as she neared the creature, feeling its presence radiate through her like a kind of warmth that only she could feel. Her teeth grit, her muscles twitched, and while her heart raced with lustful excitement, her face was a mess of desire and disgust.
“You... you need to leave. Leave and tell that elf that I don't want to see this again!” her words were not her own, for she knew deep down, she wanted more-—much, much more “Don't make me kill you!”
Trestin backed away, a sudden look of horror upon his face as she flailed her shank, and for a second she thought she had actually managed to frighten the creature. But when she heard the thundering stomps of iron sabatons and saw an axe split his jagged skull in two, she realized otherwise. She jumped as the black blood of Trestin Galloway spotted the red walls and his body twitched one final time, before slumping together like a sack of potatoes. She staggered backwards and felt familiar arms wrap around her, catching her as she was about to fall. Her eyes were wide and she gripped around Duncan's arms, as if desperate to feel the warmth of a living body again. She felt his hot breath down her shoulder, but no words escaped his lips, and with good reason. She looked forward, seeing Ramund leave his axe in the demon's skull, his huge body heaving and slouching in long, furious breaths. From behind, he looked a menace wrapped in steel and chiseled muscle; not the old and gentle man that she had known him to be. His white hair was speckled with the black blood of the demon, and even from behind, she could feel his rage. It filled the entire room more than the blood did, and set a stronger fear in her heart than the slithering voice of the elf in the top hat did. She remembered the saying 'fear the anger of gentle men', but she had never quite understood it. Until now.
“Spirits NO!” Ramund's voice was like a war drum, and the sound of his great fists smashing unto and breaking the wooden desk was like the clap of thunder. She was confused for a few moments, but then realized... the woman that lay on the table. He knew her, didn't he? The way he leaned over her, staring into her blank and lifeless eyes, tears of a failed man filling his eyes... she had not seen this kind of expression in a long, long time. She knew she would again, one day, but never like this. The silence of stifled mouths filled the room, but Ramund's anger was louder than the wildest hurricane. She stood here, stumbled into Duncan's arms, sapped of all excitement. All that was left inside was emptiness... and something she had not thought she would ever feel again. Guilt.
“Come on, Rose. We're leaving.” Duncan's voice whispered into her ears, and she knew she had no choice in this as she was dragged away, her feet sliding on the slick floors. She stared at Ramund, seeing him trying to put the butchered harlot's clothes back together, and all she wanted to do was apologize. She wanted to scream her apology to him and just run away before she hurt anyone else. But she was given no such chance, as Duncan dragged her out of the bloody tavern, and into the rain. All this could have been avoided if she just hadn't listened to that damned elf!
Oh Rose, sweet Rose, she heard his voice echo in her mind; it is only I, who can handle your thorns.