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About Literature / Professional Member Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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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.

“Enter.”

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!
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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!
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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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The rain had finally come to a stop. The dawn broke in silence, the clatter of raindrops now a thing of the past. His eyes peeled open languidly to look upon the white ceiling of his tent, which he stared at for quite a while, slowly gathering the strength to rise from his bed. More than once he felt age whispering into his ears 'go back to sleep', but he was not about to let heavy bones and sluggish muscles defeat him. He sat up slowly and put on his shirt, thankfully large enough for a man of his size. He tied up his long, pale hair into the upturned ponytail he was so fond of. Age had reduced him in many ways, but still he could boast a mane that could put jealousy in the hearts of the strongest warriors. He sat for a long while in his bed, his tired legs slung over the edge, his eyes in the muddy floor. It was only as he donned himself in his steel pauldrons, greaves, and sabatons, that he remembered he was not alone in his tent.

The boy was still fast asleep. He lay nicely tucked into several fur blankets, one underneath him to keep him off the mud. His eyes were closed, his mouth slightly ajar, his fangs peeking out from behind his lips. His tail was buried under the layer of fur blankets, but his horns glimmered in the morning light that poured in through the open entrance. He fell asleep in his silk and velvet drapes of black and red, and the way his horns were littered from root to point in rings of silver and gold, reminded Ramund of the importance of this boy. He stared tiredly at the boy for a long time, slowly consuming the fact that getting rid of him wasn't going to as easy as he had hoped—-not with a title looming over the boy's head. If he had simply been a servant, or a civilian, then it would have been so easy to simply bring him back to his parents. But when the child was part of one of the greatest, wealthiest, and most influential noble houses in all of The Mortal Realm, being blamed for kidnapping was a very real risk. If only the boy could remember how he had gotten to that cave... it reeked far and wide of kidnapping and foul play, and Ramund wasn't ready to be blamed for it. His great shoulders slouched in a long, tired sigh. This wasn't going to be solved here on the bedside, he figured. Tightening the last straps of his pauldrons and greaves, he walked out the door, and tied it shut behind him.

As he stepped outside, a red dawn woke to greet him. In the distance, the first rays of light came peeking forth over the groves, glimmering like fire upon the thousands of puddles all around him. His heavy boots sloshed in the mud as he soldiered through the uneasy terrain, every step a struggle for a man of his weight. The morning was soft and gentle, the remnants of yesterday's rain still lingering in his nostrils, the smell of water a thing of inevitability in lands like these. He reached the road soon enough, the one that cut through the camp like a knife wound, and shook off the mud from his sabatons. He met several soldiers on his way there, Myaani and men alike, some casually strolling by and others part of a routine morning patrol. He had to admit, every time he looked into the eyes of one of those Myaani squad captains, he saw one of two things: Duncan, when he was still slaying demons in The Wastelands and still had a squad to commandeer; or the same look in their eyes as the one he saw in the commander that ordered the extinction of the Casserton people. The one who nearly put an end to him for good. The one now banished and dishonored. The thought made him feel sick to his stomach, but even so, he tried to smile as they came marching by.
Before long, he came to another little tent, at the other end of the camp. It was a meager little thing, humble even for soldier standards. He stood before the closed linen entrance, and cleared his throat with a little 'ahem'.

“Agatha... are you awake?”

“Oh! Ramund!” an elderly voice called from inside, clearly surprised to see him—-or rather, hear him “Of course, of course. Come on in, have a seat.”

Ramund smiled a little as he undid the knot on the entrance of the tent, and stepped inside. It was a cozy little place that Agatha was given, much smaller than his own—-but then again, the woman in question was much smaller too. She sat by her desk, a smile on her face that age had tolled badly. Her eyes were weak and withering, her arms frail, her hands bony as they held around a book in her lap. Ramund spied the title: 'The Godshill Complex'. Ramund arched an eyebrow as he sat down in a chair opposite of her, gesturing to the book.

“That is quite the controversial book you are reading, madam. Was the author not jailed for implying conspiracy and corruption in the Godshill court?” he asked, even though he already knew the answer.

“So the story goes.” Agatha said, turning the book over to glance at the author's name imprinted on the back. She was wearing a woolen robe that the Myaani had been kind enough to give her, emblazoned with the Tu'Myaa herald; a set of tribal armor, beautifully intricate with signs and glyphs far beyond his own comprehension. Agatha set the book aside.

“It's... a rather disturbing read, to be fair. I had always been strong in my faith for Deum, convinced that he only wanted good for the world, and to keep the demons at bay. And so it does seem, doesn't it? But I guess I am as disillusioned as the poor soldiers being sent out there, thinking that there is victory to be found; thinking there might be an end to it all.” she looked up at Ramund, her smile dwindled, concern in her eyes “Did you know that the High Commander cannot be put off his post by a democratic demand, as long as there is a war being waged? According to the book, only the king can do that-—and doing so is unheard of, to say the least.”

Ramund nodded solemnly “It has reached me. It reeks of conspiracy, does it not? Like this, Deum will continue to wage his war, the people will continue to think that there is victory on the horizon, and the soldiers will continue to be butchered... for what? So that Deum may continue eating grapes in his gilded sleeping hall, while young men throw them into the jaws of demons, just beyond the horizon? And when the fires of war were truly stoked, when the demon army was amassed, what good were all the farmer boys, all the sons and daughters that had suffered in the name of gods and fatherland? What good was all the pain that Deum had wrought, all the families he had tricked into giving away their children? Death came for us, either way.” he thought back to Angus, the way he dangled there from a rope around his neck, and felt sick to his stomach. He sighed, and shook his head “I'm sorry... I did not mean to sully the mood like this. This aside, I hope you are doing well, Agatha. Are you?”

Agatha folded her hands in her lab, her fingers thin and bony, the skin dry as a barren wasteland. Her expression faltered, curtains of uncertainty and longing falling over her withered, feeble eyes. Her tongue ran across her lips, smoothing the way for bitter words, though it seemed as if they would never escape her throat. She sighed.

“I won't lie to you, Ramund. I feel so... divided. Little of this makes any sense to me, and it seems as if we are running from the foe, and charging the friend. I use the word 'friend' lightly, of course, knowing that Deum is... well... he is what he is, the word eludes me. Is it really best to fight on two fronts, while the entire world is already threatened by one?” She asked, turning a confounded look up at Ramund, her eyes weak like that of a child seeking comfort in their father, confused and wrought in dilemma. Ramund ran a hand through his pale mane, and said nothing. He felt uncertainty set its roots in his own heart for but a moment, but devotion tore that weed away, and ate it whole. He shook his head.

“It is risky, but it is what must be done. Allying with Deum may help against the demon threat, but I fear what he would do, what strings he would pull when that wind has blown. Silencing his political enemies with steel and lead is not unfamiliar to him-—this we know. And allying with him would not only strengthen him even further to achieving his own wants and desires, but we would open our arms in welcome for a dagger in our chests. We are many in this rebellion, and we cannot afford to sow doubt in our own ranks-—the soldiers must always be certain of who the enemy is. Deum has persuaded most of the known world into thinking him nothing short of a half-god... but I fear that he will not settle with only half. There are few tongues more deceitful than Deum's.”

“So the story goes.” Agatha repeated, casting a bleak glance toward the book she laid aside. Her frail fingers entwined, fiddling with one another, her hands seeming like a pair of mantises crossing claws “I know this to be true, don't worry... it just pains me so bad, knowing that I was the one who urged my own son to fight in his name, under his banner, in wake of the lie he had fed us all. I thought my son would come home one day to tell great stories about how The Crusade snaps the forces of darkness like moldy twigs... but what came knocking on that door, was not my son. I tried to believe it was, but I could sense it from the beginning. It was not him. It was a hollow husk, wearing his face. It was a pitiful remnant of the boy who used to play in tulip fields and blush at the neighbor girl. That boy died the moment he donned that armor.” her voice seemed as brittle as the rest of her, and Ramund could hear her tears, but he couldn't see them. Her eyes were so full of bittersweet reminiscence, and they seemed like they would weep, if she had any tears left to shed. Ramund let the silence rule for a few seconds, knowing that words alone said less than a quiet held in respect for a mother whose son never came home. She broke the silence, as she looked back up at Ramund, and asked the question he had hoped she wouldn't.

“Is he alright? Duncan? After what happened, I... I was lucky to get away with little but a broken ankle, but your medic refuses to tell me what has happened to my son. It has been days, Ramund! Why must I be tormented like this?” she asked, and she was clearly not talking about her broken ankle. Ramund ran a hand across his face, as if trying to hide away his expression, but his doubt was so clear that Agatha could surely smell it from here. He swallowed, and bit his lower lip.

“I cannot say, Agatha. He... he hasn't woken up yet. He still breathes, but we don't know if that is all he can do until Morrin comes to take even that away. I've not had the chance to see for myself what has happened to him, and even Lex seems doubtful. I've seen men with their legs lost, their rib cages snapped inwards, their innards turned on their heads, but I have never seen a single soldier lie upon Lex's table, and remain there for more than a day. Either they rise to fight again, or...” the words stuck in his throat like a sickly ball of rot. He couldn't push it out, as much as he wanted to, but the look on Agatha's face showed that it wasn't necessary. He let it sink back into his stomach, where it would remain, making him slowly decay from the inside. The thought was like an infection in his mind, the more he thought of it, the more it spread to all the things he held dear. It was as if nothing was sacred any longer. All seemed tied to whether or not Duncan was ever going to stand up from that bed again. They said that you never truly knew what you had, before you had lost it... Ramund had not lost Duncan yet, but he had never felt more needing of that man than now. All he needed, was an answer. But here he was, lingering in bitter ambivalence.

A second later, the linen flaps of Agatha's tent flung open, as a new face stepped inside “Ramund! Sweet Keyen, I've been looking everywhere for you!” the elf that burst in through the doorway was a rather spindly one, tall and slender, with white hair carrying a stark resemblance to a porcupine. His white lab coat flew and swayed as he came to an abrupt stop, heavily adorned with pencils innumerable and pockets filled up with notebooks. Ramund saw the distress on his face, the plague-mask that he usually wore now hanging from his neck, down his gaunt chest. His face was smooth and white like porcelain, but a slight red hue had begun creeping forth under his skin. His wide eyes, their usual softness given way to worry and concern, snapped to Agatha.

“Agatha, I hate to intrude like this, but it really cannot wait. May I?” he asked, though didn't clarify what. Even so, Agatha gave a silent nod, some curiosity in her expression.

“Lex, what is the meaning of this?” Ramund asked him, slowly rising to his feet, now towering several heads over the elf.

Lex quickly dug into his pocket, and fetched out a little piece of paper “I went to check on Duncan, and I found this on the table beside him. You'll want to read it.” he handed over the paper, his slender fingers shivering. Ramund carefully took the paper, and read it.

This rose has too many thorns, and its petals have wilted. Don't come looking for me.

He looked back at Lex, realization striking his heart like frostbite “Is this—-“

“—-From Rose?” Lex interrupted, uneasily pacing from side to side, fingers interlocked and twiddling nervously “I think it is. I can't imagine what has struck the poor girl like this, but when I went to check on her own tent, she wasn't there. All her things were, so if she really has stepped up and left, she did so in a hurry. I even asked around camp, and no one's seen her since last night.”

“Then there is no time for hesitation.” Ramund declared as he stuffed the note down his pocket. He turned back to Agatha “Agatha... I hate for this to leave so suddenly, but I fear what trouble Rose has brought upon herself. She may be unsteady, she may be unpredictable, but she would not just leave like this. There is a reason behind it, and I intend to find out what.”

Agatha sighed through her nose, but didn't object “I understand. Heavens guide you, Ramund.”

“I pray they will.” he muttered under his breath, and he stomped out the door.

Lex followed in his heels, he in a steady jog, but Ramund simply in a hurried walk-—his steps counted two of those of elven legs, tall as he was. The sun had climbed a little further up unto the sky, but while the heavens were free of clouds, a pale mist had begun to gather. White specters seemed to dance in the corners of his eyes, but every time he looked, they were gone. The mist was known to play tricks like these, so he paid it no heed.

“Rose is a strong woman, but the Rimnoll Wetlands aren't exactly known for their welcoming wildlife. I heard about Lieutenant Wolfe's encounter with a wendigo, and... ever heard of chimeras, Ramund?” Lex asked as he tried to keep up with Ramund's hurried pace, his voice cracking slightly.

“I have.” Ramund replied in a dire tone, knowing those creatures all too well. He had been fortunate enough never to encounter one himself, but they were spoken of in legend and stories to scare children more often than not. A wicked amalgamation between animals, most usually a wolf and a scorpion—-but they were always said to boast three meters in height, and the strength of a bear tenfold. He wasn't certain about the last part, but he knew that they weren't simply the spawn of fantasy and fairy tales. These creatures were undeniably real.

“If she comes across one of those, we will not see her again. I guarantee it.” Ramund spoke, leaving no vagueness in his words, every syllable thick with a dire solemnness “I pray the spirits will make sure we find her before the chimeras do.”

Some soldiers cast them curious glances as they marched by, but Ramund kept his gaze locked on the road ahead. He followed the road, but strangely enough, he was heading south, rather than north.

“Uhh... one little glitch in your plan, though.” Lex commented, gesturing over his shoulder “You want to go north, you know. If she went south, she would be going toward the Fairlands—and we all know what's going that way. If she goes to meet the demon army, you can be damn sure we've lost her by now.”

“I know, Lex.” Ramund replied sharply “But I am not going to catch up with her on my own two feet. I will need a mount.”

Lex seemed utterly perplexed for a moment “Ehh, I hate to say it, but we've got no horses that can carry a gentleman like you, big man. That's why your kind ride war-bred bears, remember? The only thing you'll find this way are the Myaani and their... oh. Oh.” realization shut him up immediately, as it became clear that Ramund had no intentions of riding a horse today.

The more he marched down the lonesome road of stone and mud that cut through the camp, the more Ramund noticed the growing presence of the Myaani. Unsurprisingly, they had separated themselves a lot from the humans, tending to their own military ways and culture. While the humans patrolled in squads of five or six, prancing about in their armors, the Myaani spent more time in meditation groups, drowned away in incense and with minds far, far away. He noticed one particular group of Myaani practicing the eastern art of spirit dancing; a style of magic rarely seen in this part of the world. Ramund only glanced briefly, but it was yet a beautiful thing to behold. Myaani young and old stood in a square formation, imitating the smooth, sailing movements of a single tutor before them. Their hands soared around them like blades, and in their wake, strings of magic seemed to well from their fingers. Blue, green, yellow and red all came clashing together in a wondrous spectrum that Ramund had not beheld in far too long. The tutor was an elder Myaani, dressed in flowing tan robes and with all kinds of jewelry littered over his tail, his foxy ears, his muzzle, piercings of bone and steel. But before long, as the smell of rain was washed away by a rancid reek of fur and manure, he recalled what he was here for.

“Ugh... that smell!” Lex complained, the smooth features of his face now wrinkled and scrunched together in revulsion. Ramund had to agree on this point, even though age had taken off some of the edge of his sense of smell-—and it was at times like these that he was thankful for that. Tucked away in the middle of the Myaani section of the war camp, were the warg stables. Wooden scaffolding, makeshift and held together by rope, made up the great big boxes that would house these beasts of war. There was made great space for them, a big clearing far away from the tents, so that those trying to sleep didn't have to live with the smell. A huge fence of planks rose to encircle the stables, but only a fool would think that this could hold the wargs back—-but perhaps it was not to keep the wargs in, but to keep reckless strangers out.

The earth here was ravaged and torn and filled up with warg piss, impossible to clean up, try as they may. Ramund stood by the road and felt his knees grow slightly weary—though he was Mjaln, though he was strong and a fierce adversary in battle, he felt horribly defeated by this pungent mix of droppings and wet dog. He saw the great big beasts stand there in their stables, their hulking figures seeming like the spawn of a god's nightmare-—and probably that of many other people too. They snarled and growled like demons at one another from across their stables, some of them thrown into bloody fighting over a leftover meal, their barks sounding like the roar of cannons. He looked down at Lex and saw him cringe, saw the reluctance in his eyes and the assurance that he was not going one step closer.

Although being a stable-boy for most humans seemed like a meager task, something given to the lowest of low, this was something entirely different. Ramund saw a rather young Myaani man, hardly even having reached his twenties, walking amongst the great big beasts with hunks of flesh in his arms. There was not a trace of fear in his eyes, not a speck of hesitation in his gait, and though the wargs brawled and tumbled around him, he did not flinch and did not stagger. Ramund felt the urge to jump in and save the boy from being squashed under the weight of two feisty wargs clashing against one another over and over, claws flying and monstrous fangs bared in fury-—but every time, the wargs moved right past him, as if something greater was keeping a protective hand around the boy. Ramund could scarcely understand how the boy was so calm. Maybe showing fear in the presence of wargs was a swift way of becoming a meal for the beasts.

“Please tell me you're jesting.” Lex said with a trembling voice as he looked back up at Ramund, but saw no jest in those eyes of his. Ramund squeezed his lips tightly together, nose wrinkled and breath heavy as he summoned forth the strength and courage he needed. He shook his head.

“In this, I do not jest.” his voice emphasized that, not a single letter brought forth with mirth on his tongue. Lex stiffened like a board in the moment Ramund stepped forward, fists clenched and heart full of audacity. Deep in him, Ramund could feel the fear bubbling, his bones telling him that this was suicide, but he knew that showing fear in face of creatures like these was a path to a bloody end. He pushed open the gate in the fence, eyes locked on the pair of wargs furiously clawing at one another, and marched straight at them.

“Hey! Hey you, stop! Do you have a death-wish, old man?!” Ramund heard the young stable boy call for him, voice raised over the vehement growling of the wargs, but Ramund simply raised a hand to him, his own voice calm and collected.

“Fret not, young Myaani. I bear strength in mind and authority in soul; these wargs shall see that I am not to be trifled with.” in truth, Ramund could feel his legs growing weaker with every step, nearly all of him telling him to turn around—-and yet, he soldiered on, walking straight for the monstrous wargs locked in combat. He could hear the stable boy shout something else, but at this point, he wasn't listening. With eyes that did not waver from the wargs, he blocked out the fear, the reluctance, the blood and mud flying as a thousand droplets from the battling wargs, and dropped into celestial focus. Everything seemed to become silent. Everything seemed to slow down, all senses blocked out and ignored as he dropped into a trance. He was moving closer to the rampaging wargs with every step, but it was as if his legs were simply moving on their own by now.

In this trance, he felt a connection and an a new level of awareness of things that the naked eye could not perceive. He felt the omens that rode the wind, what way the hundreds of creeks flowed in the mud by his feet, the exact time for when this day would become dusk, pinpointed down to the very second. He felt the touch of higher things pour in through his flesh, into his veins, becoming one with him. His fingers tingled, his flesh bustling with energies known to none but those who could speak the tongue of the spirits. Hundreds of words spilled from his mouth, instinctively and almost by reflex, as his mind and soul grasped out to harness these celestial forces that welled inside of him. Before long, he stood stock still before the roaring, snarling wargs, and felt nothing but power in him. No fear, no reluctance, no urge to turn around and flee. This was what shamanism felt like.

He saw the wargs turn to stare at him with monstrous eyes, so full of rage, and he saw them bark. But seeing it was all he did; he could not hear it, loud as it might have been, and he could not feel the terror that most people would harbor in face of monsters like these. His right fist clenched, and as he did, he felt all the power he had accumulated surge into that fist alone; before long, even naked eyes could see the magic seeping through his skin. Deep turquoise steam rose from within his fist, silken waves of energy coiling in and around his fingers. A mere second passed before his fist began to tremble, overloading with more power than he could contain; and that was when he unleashed it all. Like throwing a handful of sand, all the magic he had summoned washed across the two wargs as a wide, turquoise wave. All his senses came flowing back to him in that very second, as his trance left him—the sense of feeble legs, the smell of piss, the morning mist nipping at his skin. But he also felt an exhaustion overcoming him, forcing him to a knee. He prayed silently that his magic had worked, for if it had not, he feared what the wargs might do to him now. But as Keyen would have it, nothing happened. He slowly looked up to see the wargs sitting on their bellies, looking at him with wide, concerned eyes. He could see the turquoise magic in their stares, rolling about like tiny marble orbs... and he smiled. It had worked.

“Ramund!” Lex's voice came following shortly after, as the white-draped medic came trudging in through the mud, fear painted all over his face-—yet, he too was smiling “Ohhh my goodness Ramund, you're insane!” he cried out, yet couldn't help a chuckle “What would you do if that spell hadn't worked?”

“Nothing.” Ramund replied shortly as he struggled to his feet, eyes still on the two suddenly quite submissive wargs sitting before him “Because then I would be dead. That, however, is not the case. Behold.” he gestured loosely at the two silenced wargs.

“Yes, I see.” Lex moved up beside Ramund, clearly still a little worried about these monstrous beasts, spell-bound or not “Do you think they'll let you ride them?”

“I only need to ride one of them, Lex.” Ramund reminded him, as if that wasn't obvious enough “The other one may stay.” he looked toward the stable boy, who was now sitting on a stool, his large canine head in his hands and a look of surrender in his eyes. He smiled at him “Young Myaani! Would it be too foul if I asked to borrow one of these beasts? I require a mount, and a horse would snap beneath my weight.”

The stable boy gave a languid shrug “If I said no, you'd probably spell-bind me too. Go ahead. You've earned one. Besides, no one's using the one on the right at the moment; she's more of a spare, if we lose one... however unlikely that may be.”

“Excellent. Then it is she that I shall ride.” Ramund approached the warg on the right, and let a hand glide over her side, feeling the coarse hairs and the leathery skin. He fetched a harness from the stable and carefully put it on her; not to his surprise, the now docile warg did nothing to resist. Despite the nature of these beasts, it was easier than most mounts he had ever ridden-—and he had never ridden a warg before. Once finished, he threw himself unto her back, and gripped her by the harness. He looked down at Lex, and gave him a slanted nod, suddenly quite serious.

“I will return with Rose. That I swear.” He gave the warg a few squeezes with his feet, and she rose to her feet, Ramund now towering almost twice the height of what he already did, as a Mjaln.

Lex gave a smile, and an overly casual salute, two fingers lightly strafing by the side of his head “Best of luck to you, warg-whisperer.” he said, mirth in his voice. Ramund smiled a little too, before he whipped the reins of his mount. The great warg set into a steady jog, and carried Ramund away from here, into the misty lands beyond.

And misty they were. Ramund hadn't kept track, but it felt as if an hour had passed by now; maybe two. The camp had long since disappeared behind a thick curtain of white, the spectral mist having consumed most of the world by now. It had only grown thicker with each passing minute, the only thing keeping him on track being the stony, jagged road below. It reached little but a stone-throw into the mist, before being eaten up, draped and shrouded in wispy white silk. The warg seemed no less vigorous than it did when he had set off from camp, its tenacity quite admirable. The great furry beast soldiered on tirelessly, the heavy stomp of its massive feet now a background noise for Ramund, and its constant bumping up and down slowly becoming more and more comfortable. His hands gripped tightly around the reins, though it felt as if he didn't need them; the warg continued down the road regardless, knowing not to wander into the mud.

Ramund's eyes slid off the road, into the misty beyond, where the earth danced a filthy tango with the water, bejeweled in the light that pierced through the mist. The sun had risen further up the sky by now, but it was hard to tell where it was, now deep in the bowels of the mist. The sunlight that slipped through seemed almost prismatic, reflected in the thousands of droplets of water that swayed in the cool breezes. It was pretty, but he knew that these were the things that would deceive you, make you think that there was something within the pale shroud. People, creatures, buildings... whatever that the watcher wanted to see, they often saw. The prismatic glimmer left the world in such an ambiguous state, somewhere between something and nothing; caught between reality and dreams. For those not careful enough, the minds of gullible men could simply interpret the glimmers as something else. Ramund had heard the legends all too well—stories of widows seeing their husbands in the mist, running to meet them, and never returning. The stories were endless; some said too that it was the works of these chimeras, that these wicked creatures possessed the ability to shape and weave the mist as they wanted. But those were just stories... or so Ramund hoped.

By now, he had long since given up on trying to figure out how long from the camp was. The only way he could have a faint idea was the sense of how long he had ridden, but in this thick white blindfold, there were no woods to direct from, no hills to recognize, and even the sun was but a slurry bright spot somewhere above him. He had simply set the warg into a trot, and it had continued trotting, on and on and on, without as much as stopping for a mere slurp of the rainwater. He wondered how long his spell was going to bind the creature, but he hoped that even after the spell had waned, she would see him as her master-—or at least someone who could be trusted enough to let him ride on her. He had feared that he would stumble across someone on his journey down this road and scare their lives out, but in all this time the warg had been going, he had not met a single soul. There were all the fickle, translucent demons dancing in the corner of his eyes, but not only were they bad company—-they weren't real either. The trickery of the mist was not going to fool him today, nor any other day. He was more concerned about what it would do to the warg.

However, while in that thought, the warg suddenly seemed to notice something. It stopped up rather abruptly, its nose swiftly falling to the ground, sniffing at something. Ramund leaned forward, and tried to spy what the warg had found.

“Happened upon something, miss?” he asked, even if he didn't expect a response. However, that quickly proved unnecessary too, as he saw what the warg's great nose was whiffing at. It was a horseshoe, lying half buried in the mud; there was not a trace of rust on it, and the warg had picked up the scent almost instantly—-it was freshly lost, still strong with the smell of horse. Ramund felt a turn of emotions inside of him, good and bad, conflicted. If Rose had come this way, a rider would certainly have found her; there was only this road, and going out into the mist was a fool's errand. Rose may have been rather troubled, damaged even, but she was no fool. This rider... it could mean a lot of things. Was it a rider of good heart, come to take her somewhere safe, or was it a bandit, come to take her head? Ramund's jaws clenched at the latter thought, and he tried not to think too much of it. He slid off the warg and walked to the horseshoe, picking it from the mud. It seemed like no cheap work to him; quite the exquisite craftsmanship, in fact. Whoever rode this horse either had the money to purchase fine shoes, or the nerve to steal an expensive horse. He deduced nothing from this. It made Rose's odds no better. He stuffed the shoe into his pocket, and slung himself unto the warg's back again. He squeezed her sides with her legs, setting her into a steady jog. The journey continued.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 2.5
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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Far to the north, away from the mud and rain of Rimnoll, through the dark woods of Nightweald and over the mountain range that split the valleys into three, a man was having his lunch. Fruit, neatly arranged in little towers on his plate, held together by tiny wooden sticks. He had already finished the apples and oranges, and was indulging himself in a finer fruit from the east. He couldn't quite remember the name, but it was delicious. A man like himself deserved no less, after all.

Shoes of elegant brown leather were slung unto his desk, his toes waggling inside, the plate of fruit on his lap. He was careful not to spill any juice on his coat of celestial white silk, and the pale green shirt underneath-—that would be horribly unrefined. While chewing a piece of this sweet eastern fruit, he gazed out his window, seeing the blazing sun in the sky shine down upon the snowcapped mountains in the distance, and the rocky valley at its feet. He saw it rise high over the clouds and the highest peaks to glory. He had watched it since dawn, following its journey and its ascension from the red and orange colors, to its godlike throne in the sky. The sun was a beautiful thing, when you thought about it. Revered by all as the symbol of goodness, and a savior that would chase away the darkness. Truly commendable, that the sun had made such a great name for itself. Even in the most ancient literature was the sun praised every morning, the people raising their arms in happiness to see the dawn come again after the bitter cold of night. It was so beautiful that those who stared too long would begin to weep. Truly, there was no one who could boast of a glory to match that of the sun... so far.

He chewed a little more, and found this eastern fruit to have a rather strange aftertaste. It made his tongue feel oddly uncomfortable, and while its initial taste was sweet and fine, he cared not for what came after. He put the plate unto his desk, where all his paperwork lay. Stacks of orders to fill out, things to stamp, letters to write... his work really was never done. It seemed that no matter how much he sat down to get work done, there would always come more in than he could send out. He had long since stopped aspiring to finish the job, for there was never an end to it anyway. Now it was only a matter of doing it well, doing it quick, and doing it in a manner that made himself look good.

He sat properly in his chair, running a slender and gentle hand through his golden hair. A proud mane like a gilded river ran down his back and his shoulders, glorious enough to make even the greatest lion weep in sheer envy. They said that you could tell a lot about a man by looking at his hair-—and if that was true, what did this make him? He looked about the room, his soft hazel gaze moving across the bejeweled bed, the dozens of wardrobes full of attires for all occasions, the carpet with a tale of northern kings woven into it... he knew this tale almost flawlessly, and could tell it off the top of his head if he wanted to. There was a long line of kings in the north-—the longest, historians had claimed, and each and every one of those kings were known for something. Each their glory. Each their perfection. Each their tale to tell.

There was a knock on the door. Three, in fact. He looked towards the door upon which the very same story of kings had been engraved, reminding him of it every time he entered or left. He raised his voice to call through the wood.

“Enter.” he said. His voice was full of authority and beauty, both in equal parts, almost like gold—-the strength of metal, but with an elegance worthy of gods. The voice that answered him back, though, was more comparable with old, moldy wood.

“My lord Deum, I humbly beg your pardon.” a little hunchbacked man, draped in dark brown robes came waddling in, age having degenerated the poor man. With a stark resemblance to a mole, he was an easily recognizable servant, and one of Deum's favorites. A good servant was loyal, humble, and effective—and this one fulfilled all of those with flying colors.

“Ah, Ferdinand.” Deum greeted with a smile, turning his chair to face the hunchback “You have my pardon. What news?”

Ferdinand walked inside, but kept the door open. He cleared his throat with a hoarse cough, and continued “My lord, I had thought you would like to know that our king has returned from his hunt in the south. He is in his quarters, and bids you join him.”

Deum couldn't help himself from uttering a little chuckle “Oh Magnus, always thinking he's still young. Ah well, if the king wants me to come and praise him for having his men kill a deer in his name, then I am no man to defy him. Thank you, Ferdinand. You may leave.” he said, giving the hunchback a smile before waving him away.

Ferdinand, of course, did as asked. He bowed his crooked body and waddled out the door, as fast as his stumpy legs could carry him. Deum remained for a little while, gazing out the window, beholding the great Angel's Ascent that reached over the city of Godshill like a protective hand. The cliff truly was a marvel in the sunlight, and the way that the cathedral atop it shimmered so beautifully. Deum realized that he hadn't been up there for a while. Maybe it was time to pay some respect to the gods... but for now, the king needed those honors. The gods could wait. He took another piece of the eastern fruit, wrinkled his nose at the bitter aftertaste, and walked out the door.

It was a beautiful day in Godshill; of that, there could be no doubt. The sun's glory was unobstructed by clouds, and freely rained down upon the rocky valley that stretched far into the horizon, before meeting the rising mountains in the distance. They were but fickle silhouettes at this distance, so far away, but they were beautiful nonetheless. Every day he had the pleasure of gazing upon them, each time he passed through these great big windows. The mountains were a blessing, all could agree. Not only were they beautiful to look upon, but they made Godshill a difficult place to invade. They were like wide, tall walls of bitter snow and jagged rock that made the people here feel so safe. And he had to agree. Seeing every morning that the mountains still stood gave him a pleasant comfort in his heart. They day that the mountains crumbled, would be a day to fear. Thankfully, such a thing was vastly unrealistic and nothing to worry about, he concluded.

He rose higher and higher over the city of Godshill as he ascended the curling staircase that led up to the king's quarters. There were windows here as well, allowing him to look down upon the city built upon this tall mountain slope, and see all the people slowly rise to greet the morning. All the merchants and bakers and guardsmen and housewives with their laundry filled up the streets and breathed life into the city. From up here they were but little specks of white shirts or uniforms, chatting with one another, sharing stories... sometimes he wondered what would happen if he went down there, and decided to join in. Would they even recognize him? The thought made his mood falter a little, so he tried not to think too much about it.

Eventually, he arrived at the door of the king's quarters. It was unguarded, but more importantly, it wasn't even closed. Deum smiled a little. Magnus was truly getting either careless or old... or both. He decided to take the open door as a symbol of the king's welcoming mood, and stepped inside.

True enough, simply by seeing the quarters, Deum was reminded that being High Commander was good... but being king was better. It was nearly a hall rather than a room, with a diamond-encrusted chandelier of gold hanging from the tall ceiling, and red carpets of the finest Targussian weave on floors and walls alike. Wardrobes with the thousand outfits of the king stood scattered across the boastful quarters, and a cornucopia of fruit and candies stood placed in little jars here and there for the king to enjoy whenever he felt the desire. Every now and then a pretty servant maid came in to replace aging fruit with freshly picked ones, and while Deum had Ferdinand to serve his needs, the king had a number of servants that Deum didn't even dare to count. Every time a maid stepped it, it felt like a new face. Every time he visited the king's quarters there always came a newly employed maid or butler to tend to the king. But most impressive of all, was what the previous king had installed in these quarters.

A spring, no less. A marble statue of a scantly clad woman with her hands held out to either side, water pouring from her palms. Her eyes were turned skyward, prayer in her expression and holy rites written all over what little clothes the sculptor had given her. The water had been scented too, and carried a sweet whiff of flowers. But in all the glory and splendor that filled this place, there was something rather important missing. The king himself.

“Out here, Lucius.” an elderly voice called. Lucius' attention fell to the other side of the room where a pair of glass doors opened up to the balcony beyond. The gentle mountain breezes blew cold air into the quarters, the silk curtains flowing like the drapes of ghosts. Lucius smiled as he heard the king's voice, and hurried out to accompany him.

“You hide well, your highness. I thought for a moment Ferdinand had mistaken in his report of you returning from your hunt.” Lucius said, as he sat down in the chair opposite of the king. He switched over to the refined tongue of High Speech, a language only spoken by nobles and men of higher standing. He rather liked that language, actually. It was like he didn't have to wear a mask any longer, when he spoke it. Not to mentioned that his name was High Speech too. It was natural to him, and the king understood it just fine.

He smiled. He had to, in face of the crownbearer, though sometimes he wondered if he could even see it. The king was a man at his life's dusk, and most of his eyesight was gone. His hair had greyed to the point where it seemed more white than anything, and his eyes were going the same way. He was dressed soft royal wool, a bit more casual than his formal attire, but a sight to behold nonetheless.

“Kings do not hide, Lucius.” the king answered in High Speech too, a smile on his lips and jest in his eyes “Only from angry queens and demanding advisers. Hah!” despite that he was old and crumbling, he could still laugh. In fact, it was one of the few things he did very well. Loud and hearty, there was none who had laughter like the king, and Lucius couldn't help but smile.

“Ahh, but these are delightful days when there is no queen to pester me and I can go hunting whenever I please. It is a boon that I have you to tend to the war, Lucius. Gods grant me strength if I'd need to sit with all that paperwork. I would have had my current appearance at the age of twenty!” he said, and laughed again. Every time he laughed, his wrinkles seemed to multiply. Lucius had made a game out of counting them, but every time he tried, he felt as if there were even more than last he checked. Confounding, to say the least.

“I do what best serves the king.” Lucius replied curtly, more out of routine and duty than politeness. He reached forward and plucked a grape from a little cluster the king had prepared himself on a table between him and Lucius. He flicked it into his mouth and began to chew, just as the king began to speak to him.

“Lucius, my dear High Commander... I've been meaning to speak with you about the war.” his smile dwindled, his chair creaking as he leaned back in it “You have served me long and well, have kept the war in distant lands just as long, yet now Aegon is a smoking ruin and demons have been reported seen in The Fairlands. Is there an explanation for this?” the king asked, looking at Lucius with more concern than inquisition.

“If there is...” Lucius said as he wiped some juice off his lips with a handkerchief “...then I'm afraid we don't know about it. Your scholars have been working day and night on an explanation, and even the wisest priests have been at a loss.” he shrugged “Some say the dark king Locux finally found a way to teach his demons how think tactically. Others say that there is a single intelligent figure that commands and controls them. And then there are those who claim that it is the end of days, and there is nought to be done. I like to think that it is not the latter one.”

“And I hope you're right.” the king said while reaching forward to fill a gilded goblet with wine “I would hate to see this line of kings so abruptly ended. We've been doing this for centuries now, and I wouldn't want myself to be the last one.” as he sat back in his chair and sipped at his wine, his hazy stare moved back to Lucius “You're supposed to succeed me, after all. When I die, the whole world is expecting you to take my place... but if the whole world is dead—-you included-—that will be good for nothing, won't it?”

Lucius' heart cramped up at the thought. He tried not to show it, his teeth gritting behind closed lips. He shook his head “No... no it wouldn't. But don't you worry, your highness. I have no doubt in my mind that this demon crisis will blow over soon enough, once we've figured out what is behind it all and discarded all silly notions of an apocalypse.” he plucked another grape, and looked at it while speaking “This isn't an apocalypse. It's just... an outbreak. An outbreak that will be analyzed, contained... and eliminated.” he flicked the grape into his mouth and felt it burst between his teeth.

As he chewed, he saw the king smile again. There was no doubt in the king's mind either that what had to be done, would be done, and it would be done with such a grace that the entire world would sing songs in honor of The Crusade... but Lucius feared that the king's name would be the one on their lips, rather than his own. For what had the king been doing throughout all this? He had been hunting deer in the south, drinking wine, and watching his own life slip between his fingers. The honors did not belong to the king. The honors belonged to the one who engineered the salvation of all things living. They belonged to Lucius Deum.

He swallowed the grape, and cleared his throat “On a similar subject, I received some rather amusing reports as soon as yesterday. According to my scouts and informants, the Tu'Myaa and some of the Fairlandish people have forged a yet unnamed rebellion, and have begun marching into the Rimnoll Wetlands. Word is that they mean to rally the Moonby noble houses to their own cause, but... in truth, I'm not concerned.” he said with a little dismissive wave of his hand “The Tu'Myaa employ horribly outdated methods of war, the Fairlandish people are all farmers and bakers and butchers. Not only will they be effortless to put down, but there is no way in this century that the houses of Moonby would give their forces to their cause.” he smiled, chuckling a little “If the nobles wanted to rebel, they would have done so already. Their forces easily triple that of the current rebellion, and still they have not even as much as raised a finger against us. They live outside the domain of our holy kingdom, and that's alright. Maybe, once we have pummeled this demon menace, they will reconsider their alliance.”

The king took a long drink of his wine, nearly downing the entire thing in one go. He wiped the droplets off his lips, and looked back at Lucius “Outdated methods or no, the Tu'Myaa are still a force to be reckoned with. I would not worry about the Fairlandish people, but the Tu'Myaa are no strangers to war, despite that they've never actually partaken in one. But I'm certain you've heard about their rather... infamous warg riders, haven't you?”

Lucius rolled his eyes “Ah yes, who hasn't heard about these 'legendary' dog-fondlers? I admit that they're known for being an invaluable asset against larger bandit raids, but those are bandits, your highness. Against a legion of gods-blessed knights like our own, it does not matter how large their kennel is-—they will be put down regardless. I am not afraid.”

“Well that's always something.” The king said with a jesting smile on his face, as he finished the last of his wine and reached forward to fill it up again. Just like there was no man that could laugh like the king, there was no man who could drink like him either. The look on his face when he watched the blood red wine coil inside the goblet was one he only wore at the prospect of getting so drunk he forgot that he was wearing a crown. Was this what it was like, being king? So much power, yet Magnus used it for nothing. Nothing except demanding more wine and pastries. He was a broken old man, yet he feasted like he was still in his prime years. Lucius thought well of Magnus, but the way he sullied that crown on his head made him feel rather sick to his stomach. A crown like this one did not belong on a head that always stumbled around in an intoxicated blur. If only there was someone more capable on that throne. Godshill deserved better.

Lucius shot a glance towards the door, then back at Magnus “You know, sometimes I wonder how you can still manage to climb those stairs to your quarters. I could feel the fatigue gnawing at me by the last few steps.”

“Calling me old, boy?” the king gave a judging look, then burst into another mighty guffaw “HAH! No no no, I jest. Of course I'm old, but my life is up here, Lucius. What would I ever do if I couldn't climb up to my own bed, to this sweet cornucopia that I've become so addicted to? The day that I fail to ascend my own staircase is the day I lay down and die, my friend.” he said, and began chugging down the next goblet of wine. Lucius watched as the king filled his belly with wine as if he knew that his life was at its eve, and he had to drink as much as possible before he drew his last breath. And maybe he did.

“Somehow, I have my doubts that starvation is what will kill you, your highness.” Lucius said with a smile, as he plucked another grape from the cluster and flicked it into his mouth. He swallowed before speaking “You said it yourself. Age has begun to take its toll on you. Have you considered writing down your legacy? At this point, death could come for you as soon as tomorrow.”

The king snorted, as he wiped some wine off his lips “Always so morbid, Lucius. Calm down, have a goblet. I have scholars to write my farewells, and when I finally decide to put down the crown and kick the bucket, I won't give two shits about what they've written. I could be known as the king who fornicated goats and used stillborn children as catapult ammunition, for all I care. Once I'm dead, I'll be in the arms of Morrin, in my own tailor-woven paradise. That's what they say about the afterlife, isn't it?”

“Indeed it is.” Lucius said as he leaned back, not responding to the king's offer of wine, and not intending to either “There will be life after death... and not just for you, your highness. Life will continue here in Godshill after you close your eyes for good. The people will want to know what your last thoughts were. You are like a god to them. They would be crushed to know that you only cared for wine and feasting.”

The king snorted loudly. He put down the goblet, and looked Lucius right in the eye “Need I remind you who you're talking to, boy?” he said, a sudden darkness in his voice “I will not have such accusations. A great line of kings have been before me, each and every one with a story of glory to tell, and I am no exception. I was the one who shook hands with the council of Aegon, and adopted them into my kingdom. I was the one who established trade routes with the Luminites, where even you thought that they were just going to shun us like they always had. So keep your tongue on a leash, Lucius. You're not king just yet.”

An unpleasant silence fell over them, in that moment. Lucius' eyes averted into the cluster of grapes and into the mountain-adorned horizon. He chewed at his lip, regretting those words. And here he had hoped for a friendly conversation to win a bit more of the king's favor. Magnus was right-—he wasn't king just yet. 'Yet' being the keyword.

“I apologize.” he said, although reluctantly, the words feeling like acid on his tongue. He forced himself to look back into the eyes of the king, head bowed slightly “I meant no offense, your highness. It was simply concerned for the people, that is all.”

The king looked away too, a sour frown having conquered where his smile once was “Well, you can stop that now. Your concern is unreasoned. I've been king for more years than the average peasant can count, so don't try to lecture me.” Lucius didn't think it possible, but the king actually managed to look angry and down an entire goblet of wine at the same time. He wiped the red droplets off his mouth, and looked back at Lucius “Besides... since when have you been concerned about the people at all? You're the one who feeds them propaganda 'till they're full to the bursting point—and then you feed them a bit more. Are you going to tell me this isn't true?”

Lucius' frowned a little too now, though not as harshly as the king “I've never said it wasn't true... but I am going to insist that it isn't meant with evil in mind. My father was a priest, and he taught me that lies can be used for far more than selfish gain. It is even written in the tomes of Jullix, the goddess of beauty and lies! 'The one who spares pain through lies, is more benevolent than the one who thoughtlessly spews out truth', remember? Sometimes it can be compassionate and kind to keep the truth from those whom the truth would only harm... were it not for me, the streets would be in riots day and night. If they knew what was going on out there-—“

“That's enough!” the king spat, wine droplets flying everywhere in the wake of his words “...Thank you, Lucius. You've made your point loud and clear. I know my holy rites, and I know that your efforts have been to much gain for Godshill, so... is it a pat on the head you want? I can give you one, if you want.”

Lucius was silenced. He had to swallow his words that were still in his mouth not to speak them. He had such an urge to speak, but he knew his place. The king was the king, and that was that... sadly. He folded his hands in his lap and said nothing, all too focused on keeping his frustrations at bay. He gave the smallest of nods to the king, and rose from his chair.

“I deeply apologize, your highness.” he said, forcing out a humble tone from the far corners of his patience “I must be very stressed. I thank you for the grapes and the company, and it pleases me to see that you have returned safely from your hunt. By your leave, I would return to my duties.”

The king looked up at Lucius, boredom and annoyance in his withering eyes. He gave a dismissive wave of his hand, and a low grumble “Begone, then. You've already put a sour taste on my tongue, and I fear that not even the next casket of wine can wash it away. Come back tomorrow, and maybe we can speak on better terms.”

Lucius performed a galant bow, and knew better than to say anything more. With a silenced tongue, he left the king's quarters, and returned to his own.

Once there, he slumped into his chair, and let out a long breath of relief. The king was a great man, but he was old, and he was taxing to speak with. Lucius' eyes looked upon the massive stack of paperwork that had to be done on the desk before him, and realized that the time he spent on the king could have been spent so much better on actually getting things done. The fool he was. In the time the king had been gone, he must have forgotten what kind of imbecile bore that crown. A long, brooding silence filled his quarters, only disturbed by the howling of mountain winds on his window. He looked at the stacks of papers, and knew that work had to be done. But amongst all these papers, there was one that cried out for attention. He picked it from the stack, inked his pen, and began to write.

Court Alchemist Orlan Grey,

My patience is long and my will tenacious, but I find myself so tragically miserable in face of it all. Godshill has lingered long enough in political lethargy. The time for change has come. I hope you still have that recipe we spoke of, for I expect a vial of it soon enough. You will be payed well, and you will face no consequences of what will happen. It will be as if you were never involved. Leave it to me, and Godshill shall see a brighter dawn once the old sun has set.
Do not betray me, Mr. Grey. I will personally see to it that your tongue is removed, if it wags the wrong way. And your head too, if it becomes necessary. Do not make it so.

Gods be with you.
~High Commander Lucius Deum


But in a place far away, half a dozen hours ago, things were not as bright and golden. Here, it was wet. Rose really didn't like the wetness of it all. It clung to her like gross, clammy hands all over her body, touching her places that only belonged to her. She had sought the shelter of tents as much as she could, just to avoid the rain. It had been raining all day, and even now, as the sun had set and night had conquered the world, it was still raining. She listened to the endless drumming of the raindrops on the tent ceiling, as if trying to get through. She heard it splash in the countless puddles outside, and she felt it under her shoes. A tiny creek was slipping through the linen entrance of the tent, as if the land was bleeding. It glimmered in the light of a single lantern. The flame was slowly dying out, now fickle and small, and the shadows around her seemed to grow thicker. But while Rose hated the rain, she had nothing against the darkness. Shadows made her feel... safe. At home, even. Even if she was so far from it.

In the lantern's yellow-brown glow, she sat. She had been awake all day but felt no desire to lay down and sleep, as the rest of the camp had. It was blissfully quiet now, were it not for the clatter of the rain. She had been watching the soldiers prance around in their armor, and couldn't help but be reminded of her years in The Wastelands. It was oddly nostalgic, but not something she enjoyed. So far, though, her dismay and distaste was simply something she conjured in her own head. It all smelled of war, but in many ways, it was not like what she had experienced before. There were no escorts to keep her from killing fellow soldiers; no iron cages that reeked of piss; no drunken guards groping her, knowing that if she complained, it would all just be seen as another symptom of her so-called 'insanity'. A delusion, they said. A defense mechanism... no one as much as suggested that here. It was as if she was just another civilian amongst the rest. She had even seen one of those Myaani warriors smile at her. For a moment, she had feared he was going to rape her. But he just walked by. It was almost too strange, even for her.

She flinched a little as she felt the tiny creek reach her ankle. She had been lost in thought, and it had sneaked up on her. Devious little thing! So icy and cold and clammy... she sneered, and stomped on it a few times for punishment. She watched the droplets scatter and seep into the mud, defeated. That'll teach it. She scooted over on a nearby chair and folded her legs up under herself this time, better prepared. She sat there, in the outermost fringes of the dying lantern's glow, feeling the shadows embrace her. She considered blowing out the lantern completely... but Duncan might not like that.

In the other side of the lantern's bubble of light, was Duncan. He lay there on his bed, stripped of everything but his undergarments to make space for the balms and bandages. He was covered in a blanket now, but she knew that underneath, his chest was wrapped up like a present and soaked in some weird substances that the medics claimed would heal him right back up. She sure hoped so. He was still breathing, so that was good. She had kept the healing balm that Duncan gave her, so many days ago, but the doctors had claimed that too. She didn't mind, though. She realized that it was a necessity.

“Would you like me to put some more oil on the lantern?” Rose asked him, pointing up at the lantern in the ceiling. He didn't answer. Rose wasn't surprised-—he was unconscious, after all. She smiled.

“That's true. I sleep best in darkness too. As a matter of fact, now that I think about it, I do most things best in darkness!” she chuckled, fingertips at her lips as she did. Her eyes rose to the lantern, and this time she really considered killing that flame. But then again, it was going to die soon anyway, so it didn't really matter. She looked back down at Duncan.

“You know... I am really liking this Wolfe guy. Remember him? You were with him just as we were plowed down by that warg, and you were knocked out. He has a good head on his shoulders. Strong leadership, a tactical mind... all-round a good asset to our troops, I think.” she said, nodding a few times to herself to enforce her own opinion. She ran a hand through her short black hair, her fingers slightly numb from the cold. A silence fell between the two, Rose watching Duncan's chest rise and fall in a steady rhythm, and he lying there, unconscious as ever. She picked up her chair and sat down by his bed, close enough to touch. He had some needles in his neck, slowly pulsing medicine into his veins. His hair was a mess, to say the least. His otherwise beautiful lengthy crown of black hair had been ruffled and messed up, now a disorderly tangle that made him look so silly. Rose wrinkled her nose and moved over to a nearby desk, rummaging through one of the drawers until she found a comb. It was short and rusty, but it would have to do. She sat down again, lifted up his head, and began to comb out all the knots and tangles.

“Where oh where would you be without me, Duncan?” she wondered, smiling as she did “In trouble, I bet. What if some thug had found you there in Aegon, your veins blue and your brain drunk on whatever drug you had shot into your arm? He would have robbed you blind, I'm sure—-stolen your wallet, your clothes... your life even, if he was particularly nasty. But no. That didn't happen. I found you, didn't I?” the comb got stuck, and she had to yank pretty hard in his hair to get it free. She was glad that he was unconscious, or this would surely have made him scream.

She laughed a little again “Not that it's all that much better, of course. I admit, I considered killing you too... not that such a thing is all that uncommon. I imagine killing a lot of people, but your situation was just begging for it. You were a sitting duck, Duncan. I could have stuck a few fingers down your throat and made you suffocate on your own vomit. I could have put you face down on the road and watched you drown in a pile of sand.” her lips pursed, and her combing stopped. She quieted down, keeping silent for a while, her smile gone.

“Sometimes I wonder why I didn't do it. I would have spared you so much pain. I mean... just look at you. You're a wreck—-physically as well as mentally. Wolfe told me all about how you killed that woman, thinking she was a demon. That's... scary. Maybe you're still at war, Duncan. Maybe you never escaped the battlefront.” she looked down at his unconscious face, smiling again “We can be insane together, then! Wouldn't that be fun?” her words were dripping with self-ridicule and irony.

She finally combed out the last knots of his black mane, and ran a gentle hand over it “There. Nice and orderly. Doesn't that feel better?” she asked, looking down into his closed eyes, for a moment feeling like she deserved a response. Of course, she didn't get one. Duncan simply lay there in silence, the only sound escaping him being the breath that entered and exited his open mouth. She smiled sympathetically.

“I understand. You've had a hard few days, and you're exhausted. I admit that I am too, but... I think I got off easier than you did. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like, killing someone just like that.” she blatantly lied, but tried not to show it “If I were you, I'd find whatever family she had, and apologize. That would be nice. I'm sure they'll understand that you weren't yourself at that moment... I hope. We should find out.” she sat with her hands in her lap, as her smile began to dwindle a bit “Whenever you wake up, that is.”

“Who says he's going to?” a new voice suddenly joined the fray, and one that Rose dreaded she would hear again. Her teeth gritted, her veins grew icy, her muscles tensed as she heard that serpentine voice slither into her ear. She swallowed, and hoped for a moment that it was just a hallucination. It was just a trick of her mind. It was nothing. Just—-

“Come now my dear, be realistic.” the voice was there again, coming from behind her. It was clear now that it was not just her mind playing tricks on her—-he was actually there. She would curse, but she feared that he would hear that too. She slowly turned the chair around to see him there.

“I can hope.” she replied bitterly, nose wrinkled and eyes full of aggression “And I mean to do whatever it takes to get him back on his feet. Just you watch.”

“Oh, I'm watching! I've been watching for quite a while, in fact.” he was outside the lantern's reach, but the malignant grin on his face cut through the shadows like a knife. She could faintly see the silk and velvet folds of green and blue and red that made up his clothes, elaborate and vivid like a circus manager's drapes. His long elven ears stuck out the sides of his head, tall and sharp like daggers. He had his tall top hat on as always, and his cane in hand, gesturing widely and theatrically as he spoke “And what I see is a dead man, my love. I know you are so good at denial, but for once, look at the man and realize that he is not waking up. You saw fair and well what happened to him... ribcage broken inwards, internal bleeding galore... who's to say that his brain isn't bleeding like a stuck pig as well?” he asked, raising his palms in a shrug, his smile as wide as ever.

Rose sneered viciously, her fingers clenched so hard around the steel comb she was close to drawing blood “You joke about things you know nothing of! The doctors say that he may still live. And I'm sorry, but I think I'll prefer the doctors' words to yours.” she said, firm in her decision.

The elf rolled his eyes, sighing deeply “Oh how attached you have become to the poor fool! And here I thought you simply wanted to kill him; him and his old giant friend too. What ever happened to that, I ask? You used to be so much fun, sweet Rose.” the elf said, his smile gone, only his emerald eyes clear in the darkness before her. This time, it was Rose's turn to smile.

“Don't I entertain you any longer? Then stop following me. Find someone else to bother.” she snarled, teeth bared like an animal.

“Hm. Maybe I should.” the elf said, slowly rising from his chair. He walked through the light of the lantern, right up to Duncan's unconscious body, and drew a flintlock from his belt. He put it to Duncan's forehead, his smile gone, his jests run dry “But if I can't win you, I see no reason to uphold my promise any longer. I told you I would not kill your friends, in fear of hurting your feelings... but alas, if I cannot have your love, what is there left in it for me?” the flintlock gave a dry click as he pulled back the hammer of it.

Rose rushed to her feet, quickly pushing the flintlock aside “No no no, please don't!” her voice broke like fragile glass, her eyes wide as they stared up at the elf “I...” she gulped, hesitant in her words “...I love you.”

A silence lingered over them for uncomfortably long. She could hear her own heartbeat pound in her chest together with the endless drumming of rain on the linen tent. But clearest of all, was the sadistic glee inside the elf that she could hear as his smile grew wide once more.

“...There's the Rose I know.” he said, his voice like poisoned velvet as he lowered his hand, sheathing the flintlock “I knew you hadn't changed, my love. All of this ruckus is just... confusing you. Your feelings are tumbled, your mind led astray by all the war and destruction. But don't you worry, my dear. It will all be over soon.” she could feel his gentle fingers around her chin, raising her face so that he could look deep into her eyes. The emerald stare he gave her made her feel so dark inside, so paralyzed, like looking into a depiction of her own dread. Sweat began to trickle down her temples and cheeks, her hands shaking.

“And once it is, we can dance upon the corpses of entire nations; we can bathe in the blood of kings; we can frolic in great cities, now turned to ash... don't deny it, sweet Rose—it is what you want. You are in a haze of confusion, but don't be afraid... I will be your guide. And should you get too lost, I will always know how to bring you back on track, my dear.” he whispered into her ear, while gesturing at Duncan. Rose closed her eyes, not wanting to think about it. She couldn't for the life of her imagine Duncan dead at the hands of this... snake. She shook her head fearfully.

“I won't. I promise. I won't fall astray... when all this is done, I will be yours.” her voice shivered, the words on her tongue feeling venomous and acidic. She swallowed, and looked downwards, doing all she could to avoid his piercing stare. And only then did he let go of her.

“You'll be happy at the end of all this, sweet Rose.” he turned his back on her, standing in the entryway of the tent, gazing outside into the rain and darkness. He seemed oddly contemplative for a long while, the silence dragged out for almost a full minute, before he shot a gaze back at her, smiling softly “I only want the best for you. I want you to be happy... you just need to realize what your happiness is.”

Rose wanted to speak back, but she didn't get the chance. He walked outside into the rain right after his last word, and though Rose rushed outside to catch him, he was nowhere to be seen. In the dimly lit night where lanterns littered the world like fireflies, there was only rain and faint moonlight to be seen. She felt the icy cold raindrops on her skin and the cool breezes in her hair, but it was all drowned out by an exhausting sense of betrayal. She looked back at Duncan, only then realizing what she had done. Regret and anxiety came rushing into her, as epiphany struck. She felt her breath grow heavy, and she couldn't tell the difference between the rain and the tears on her cheek. Chewing on her lip, left in a bitter silence, she knew there was only one thing to do. She rushed over to the desk beside Duncan's bed, and found some parchment, a feather pen, and a full inkwell. She dipped the pen a few times, and immediately began to write.

This rose has too many thorns, and its petals have wilted. Don't come looking for me.

She left the paper there in the lantern's glow, and stepped away from the desk. Hesitation and fear gripped around her heart like constricting chains, but she knew there was no other way. Only now did she realize that Duncan was not suffering from trauma, not mental, not physical. He was suffering from her. She was his illness. She was his pain. All of this, all this war, all this apocalypse... if they were going to succeed, she could not be part of it. It was with steps heavy as lead, and a heart even heavier, that she ran out the door and into the rain.

Darkness became her, as shed fled the lantern-light that surrounded the camp. Like plunging into dark waters, she left the safety of light behind, and fled. Tears flowed from her eyes and mixed with the rain. She felt the thousand droplets clatter against her, collide against skin so pale and frail, icy cold with the touch of night. The winds had picked up, hurling the rain all over the place, sharpening the teeth of the cold. But she didn't mind the bite. She didn't mind the rain any longer, no matter how drenched she became, no matter how much her clothes stuck to her skin and no matter how much her hair became heavy—heavy as the heart that weighed down her chest. She glared into the darkness as she ran, hoping vainly for salvation beyond the shadows, but there was always only rain and this jagged road of forgotten stone. So desperately searching for home, but all she found was more rain, more cold, and more darkness. Her home was nowhere to be found, just as she thought her home was with them. In the camp, with the rebellion... with Duncan. So little she knew. So naive she had been. She saw clearly now, that women like her had no home.

Once the light of the camp had subsided, drowned away in shadows and mist, she slowed down. She wasn't in a hurry, after all. There was nowhere she wanted to go, nothing she had to reach. She sat down on the stony road, feeling the rain tap on her scalp, her eyes in a puddle at her feet. She watched with empty eyes the droplets fall from the bangs of her hair and into her lap. She felt tiny creeks trickle down her arms, through the linen underneath her leather armor. But most of all, she felt... relief. There was something oddly comforting in being here, all alone in the darkness. It reminded her of home—-her true home. Her throat felt like it was burning, a sobbing wail begging to come out, but she wouldn't let it. She didn't weep. She never wept. She could not hold back the tears, but she would not loose herself to severed ties and a broken heart. Here, no one could tell her tears from the rain anyway.

She looked into the darkness again, into where the road snaked and disappeared. She was surrounded by the shadows, and she felt the whisper to her. 'Useless', they said. 'Burden', they mocked. 'Murder', they tempted. She saw the shadows twist and move in the corners of her eyes, but every time she turned to look, there was only wind and rain. She clutched her own soaked hands, but she felt her fingers slip. Her hands had become numb from the cold, and she felt that the rest of her was soon to come. The ground was hard underneath her, and she felt so frail that she might break a bone by simply sitting here. And still, the shadows whispered. A hundred cackling voices, tongues of snakes that licked her ears, hissing dark words of despair to her. Finally, she snapped.

“What do you want from me?!” she howled into the darkness, her voice cracking as the wail escaped her. She could not hold it back any longer, and fell unto her back, screaming into the air and feeling the rain in her mouth. She finally broke. She felt the cold grasp her like a thousand touchy hands, and everything they touched became numb. She lay there in tears and mud, not knowing what to do, not knowing where to go. And here she thought that she'd never weep. She wailed out her lungs, but soon, there was no more air left in her lungs to wail. She became tired. Sleepy. Her arms felt heavy as they slouched limply down her side. Her eyes stared upwards, watching the clouds weep like she did, feeling their tears clap against her forehead. So gods mourned too, it seemed. What did they mourn for, she wondered. Was it her? Did they mourn the woman she had given up on being? Did they mourn her surrender to darkness? In these thoughts, she felt herself drift away from this cruel, dark world, and into dreams. But before her eyes closed, before sleep came to carry her away, she heard the sound of horse's hooves.

A dark rider comes for me, mother. He means to take me away. He means to take me to you, and to father.


How I have yearned for this.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 2
So, I actually posted chapter 2 some time ago, but I realized that I could smush chapter 2 and 3 into one chapter, so I did. Both of them were rather short, so I did the logical thing, and made one long chapter out of it! This one is named 'The Sun and the Weeping Heavens', where I introduce a few more characters. Re-introduce, that is. With this being early in the second book, I need to re-describe old characters to the audience, since people may easily have waited a while after finishing book 1, to pick up book 2. Hopefully it's not too annoying. Thanks for reading, see you next chapter!

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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SteenBelhage
Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
Denmark
My name is Steen, and I am a writer. I believe that title will stick with me for many years to come, as it is one of the few productive passions I have ever had. I've picked up many hobbies and free-time activities, but many of them have somehow faded into the vast depths of boredom. However, my writing has never suffered that fate. I am determined and passionate in my work and I do my very best to train myself to be disciplined about it as well. If I wish to make a living of it, I'll need to be able to write even when I don't want to. But let me tell you... it isn't easy.
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:iconthat1personyouforgot:
That1PersonYouForgot Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
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:iconsteenbelhage:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
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:iconrollingtomorrow:
RollingTomorrow Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   General Artist

Hello! :iconexcitedhiplz:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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