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About Literature / Professional Steen Engel BelhageMale/Denmark Recent Activity
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There was an iridescence in the air. A slash of gold breaking through the drowsy mist. Every drifting droplet, every little speck of mist, made into tiny lanterns of prismatic light. The light of noon cast upon this grey, grey place gave it a touch of life that was hard to find in a city like this one. It was quiet, as always, save for the gentle song of water lapping against the granite banks. The lake shimmered in the sunlight, no less than the mist that adorned it, hovering just above its gentle waves. Even with the mud encircling it, even with the squalor of the slum district engulfed in the stench of sewer, manholes everywhere slowly bubbling filth like the streets themselves were vomiting, there was a beauty about this lake. True, it was artificial, man-made, but so were the greatest pieces of art that now hung in museums across the world. In its gilded shimmer, the lake was a jewel in a pile of dung; a refuge in a world otherwise so unforgiving. There were times where a fragile mind had to seek its solace, its peace in an age so ravaged by war. This was one of those times.

Duncan had challenged fate, coming here—this he knew. With the wind gently tucking in his long black locks, he gazed out over the noon-lit ripples in the water, a picture in his mind refusing to leave. The lake looked much different in the sunlight than in moonlight, but he was certain it was the same lake. There were not many—if any—like it. This was most certainly it. This was where he saw Rose come dancing across the waves, in the arms of that... man.

He sighed, breathing out a long plume of steam that roiled in the air, mixing with the mist. He had come here to empty his head, to be free of the slaughter that was taking place at the Umbral manor, but instead he came face-to-face with his own deceptive memories. What he saw... was it truly just a figment of his imagination? It seemed so real. But so did the massive sea monster that rose from the depths of the lake—and that was most certainly just his drug-addled brain playing tricks. Horrifying, ungodly tricks. Was this man just another one of them?

He emptied his mind again. He let it all out, silencing the dizzying rush that his thoughts had become. He let the sound of the lake's trickling and the quiet hum of the wind fill it up, all while focusing on the sense of the mist in his lungs. Through this, he knew he still had control over his own head... somewhat. A peaceful mind was easily harnessed, but it was in times of stress that it became furious... rabid... hungry. Images of the woman in Casserton came rushing back, but he hurried to evict them from his head. Not today. Today, he would have peace in mind.

“At least bring a blanket next time.” Duncan's eyes snapped open as words invaded and broke his silence “Or a coat.”

He felt his heart burst into a sudden rush, adrenaline bolting through his veins, but as he bounded to his feet and turned around, he saw who it was. Her wizened face was halfway illuminated in the light of noon washing clean these dingy streets, and mud covered up her shoes—as well as the rest of the district. She was strangely camouflaged, wearing a brown tunic that was a little too large for her small body. Her gaunt, frail hands were entwined, and her face grew a few extra wrinkles as she smiled so softly to her son.

“You can put the sword away, Duncan.” she said, glancing to the blade in Duncan's right hand. He looked down at it as well, and blinked in confusion. He couldn't recall drawing it at all, yet there it was, clenched firmly in his steel grip. He sheathed it slowly.

“You shouldn't be here.” Duncan said, the heat of adrenaline in him slowly dwindling as she approached, stepping up to the lake's granite banks, gazing out over the noon-lit waves like he had done just seconds ago “The slums are the worst place you could be, at the moment. With the rumor of the demons coming, every thief and every thug are robbing strangers like there's no tomorrow—which is seeming like a very real risk to them.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked, turning her old and withering eyes on Duncan, and though age may have taken most of her, there was still that parental authority in her stare. Duncan wasn't quite sure how to answer that, but when he looked out over the mist-swept lake again, he found what he was looking for.

“To get away from it all.” he said, mostly just to himself, but loud enough for Agatha to hear “Thugs and thieves seem much better than what's going on out there. When the bloodshed began, I had to get away. People killing people...” disgust spread like an infection inside him. He sighed it out “You know there's something wrong in the world when men will set aside the demons on their doorsteps, just so they can keep killing each other for a while longer. It seems like this is the time to band together and fend off hell pounding at our gates... but maybe I'm just naive.”

Agatha slowly sat down at the edge of the lake with Duncan's help, who then followed suit, taking his place beside her. He took off his boots and lay them beside him, so that his bare feet could gently touch the surface of the cold water. It was chilly, but soothing still.

“Do you remember what your father would always tell you?” Agatha asked, but kept her gaze on shafts of light that pierced the mist “And his father before him? Do you remember the book he gave you, all those years ago?”

Duncan smiled a little. He was surprised at this, and it felt almost alien, but he couldn't quite help it “Of course.” he nodded sincerely “Know your enemy—those were his undying words. I like to think that they are one of the reasons I'm still alive today.”

“I don't doubt it.” Agatha said, this time turning her eyes on Duncan “But I think they mean more than just the ability to summarize the demons' anatomy down to the smallest ligament. More than a complete schematic of their behavior, or in what varieties they come. More than through what hellish means they are created, or even the history of their appearance here in our realm.” she looked into his eyes, and smiled softly, sympathetically “It's great that you're well-versed in all of these things, and you're probably right that they are what has kept you alive... but in these times of uncertain allies, I think they have another meaning. It's important to know what your enemy is... but it's even more important to know who.” she took his hand, gently, her own feeling uncomfortably cold “Ask yourself again, Duncan. Do you know your enemy?”

Duncan's smile didn't last long. With Agatha's eyes in his and her question hanging heavily in the air, he found his tongue uncomfortably limp. He looked away from her, into the misty waves of the lake, and let silence settle in. But he broke it shortly after “I feel like I am the only one who does.” he said, an honesty in his words that felt relieving to express “Ramund too, thank the gods. But this whole rebellion...” he chewed on his lip while his eyes drifted over the distant grey skyline of the city, old giants of mist-wreathed stone casting their grim shadows upon the streets.

“'s like they've got it all backwards. Unfortunately, I'm not sure they have much choice either. Fighting the crusade seems like suicide, but joining it would only give Deum even more power than he already has. It seems like the most prudent thing would simply be to lay down their differences to fight this common enemy—but what can you do, when one of them has greed stuck in his head and the world's largest army in his hands? That man is so bloody obsessed that we're left with nothing but two options: total submission, or full-fledged war. It's a lose-lose situation. I just pray we've chosen the lesser of these two evils.”

Agatha gave Duncan a rather unsatisfied look, as if this was not what she was looking for “Let politics be politics. Be as it may, we are still only bricks in a much larger game. The chieftain and the mayor—and hopefully the noble houses too—will see to these things. Your true enemy lies you much closer, Duncan.” she said, and this time, there was a look of great concern in her eyes. Duncan saw it, even felt it, but what she meant was beyond him. The motherly worry in her expression was all too familiar to him, in all those times when she wanted him to discover on his own what he had done wrong, or how he felt about something—usually, this had been about that sweet little girl from around the corner in Casserton, but she had never seemed this... afraid. What was it she wanted him to face?

Just as he was about to ask, a third came to join their company of two “Duncan!” he said, the powerful voice of Ramund seeming like thunder in comparison to Agatha's gentle words. Duncan turned around to see his sergeant standing there, tall as the squalid houses that surrounded him, mud covering up a new pair of boots; heavy, but fit for travel. He had cast off his armor, clad in dark green clothes that made him seem much smaller than usual, without the steel pauldrons he used to wear. The wind tucked at his beard and his white crown, and he seemed like he had been running, judging by his heavy breath.

“You are wanted.”

Duncan rose, helping Agatha to her feet as well, but his eyes remained on Ramund “Wanted? By whom?”
“The council.” Ramund answered swiftly—he seemed to be in quite the hurry “The noble council, at that.”

Duncan's eyes widened, and his heart jumped. Even Agatha seemed surprised “The council? Oh goodness... more politics. But why me?”

For a moment, Ramund seemed rather amused. His huge arms folded, and a little smile took shape behind his pale beard “Because you outrank me, Duncan. We may be deserters, but it seems that we are not quite out of the system yet.” his gaze moved between the two humans before him. An arched eyebrow indicated his realization of the situation “Oh... I didn't mean to intrude.”

“It's quite alright, Ramund.” Agatha said, gesturing for him to be at ease “We were finished anyway.” she turned to Duncan and gave him a smile too, squeezing his hand “Do what you must, Duncan. I've got a room at The Raincloud, just north of here. If you need me, for whatever reason, I'll be there. I know you're a grown man now... but I'm still your mother, and I care about you. Don't you ever forget that.” the weight in her words served to stoke the concern inside of him, but amidst it, there was comfort too. He looked into his mother's eyes and returned her smile, before reaching forth to give her a hug that he had been wanting to give for quite some time. It was easy, he found, to forget a mother's love in these turbulent times. He savored every moment of that hug.

“Now go on.” she said, as their arms released “A captain must do what a captain must do.”

“I do concur.” Ramund commented with a smile of his own “And I do not believe that patience is a virtue of the nobility.”

“Very well then.” Duncan said, taking a step back from his mother “I don't see what choice I have. Let's get this over with.” he straightened up his armor as best he could, suddenly wishing that he had chosen an attire like Ramund's instead of this plate—if only he didn't feel so naked without it. He held his mother's fragile hands, and uttered the words “Stay safe.” with some reluctance. It was with a final smile from both of them, that they parted ways—Agatha to her room at the inn, and Duncan to something he, in truth, wasn't quite certain he would escape alive from.

The door slowly opened up. Silent, gliding quietly upon well-oiled hinges. There was a scent of aristocracy in the air, such an astonishing contrast to the mud of the slums that he had been seeking solace in, just a few minutes ago. But here he stood, his boots cleaned by servants so as to not bring the outside filth in; the smell of varnished floors was everywhere, inescapable, and it made him feel uncomfortably ill at ease. As if he didn't belong.

And the eyes everywhere didn't make it any easier. Outside the large wooden doors, was the forum hall of nobility; here where the velvet lords would spend their time with other of similar rank, far from the ragged presence of the people, the rabble, the plebs. It was a large square hall with a high ceiling that carried all kinds of curious paintings, propaganda some might say, displaying a clearly exaggerated depiction of old noble lords conquering the monarchy that once ruled this realm—the paintings made it seem like a revolution of sorts, a quest of equality and justice... but even Duncan could see that while the spoils of that war may have been rich, equality was not amongst them. Maybe the lords could tell themselves this, looking to the glorified paintings of their ancestors riding into battle upon white steeds, but one glance out into the streets would surely tell another story.

The hall was quite popular at this hour, it seemed. Elderly lords sat and chatted on benches in between the staggeringly tall marble pillars that held the decorated ceiling aloft. Children in rich clothing and combed hair played around on the similar marble floors, marble where veins of strange colors slithered through, marble built by the populace, but enjoyed by this select elite. Duncan didn't know much about architecture, but it was clear that this particular building had taken plenty of inspiration from Godshill structures—which all was quite ironic, considering the opposition that most nobles had toward the Empire. With the white and clean colors of it all, it was unmistakable—and above the tall wooden door by which Duncan now stood, there was even inscribed some words in High Speech. “Domus Dei et Homines”, it wrote. Unfortunately, he didn't know High Speech.

His attention was swiftly diverted, as the servant that led him to these doors suddenly stomped his cane three times and raised his voice to the room beyond “Captain Duncan Montgomery Ross, of the Dawn rebellion!” he said, and Duncan swiftly snapped out of his fascination of the white forum halls, to see what the door opened up to. Or in this case: who. In a circular room, smaller than the forum hall but still impressively large, an equally circular table stood. And at this table, a dozen sincere-looking characters sat; men and women, some of them wearing formal uniform-like attires, while others wore what seemed like their everyday velvets. There were old and young alike, even a few children too, and Duncan swiftly noticed how the families were instantly recognizable—for they all wore their house colors.

The Rex family, consisting of the lord of the house, Barthol Rex, followed by his wife and his eldest son, wore dominantly red outfits, though slashed with certain other colors befitting their desires. Barthol Rex was easily recognized; he was the eldest of them all, this Duncan knew. Eldest of all nobility, as a matter of fact. He was the last living nobility to witness and be part of The Silk War, a bloody strife between House Rex and House Hedwen, that now had settled, but left an ever-present tension between these two houses—despite that there was only one person left who had actually witnessed it with his own eyes. Their emblem, the roaring red lion, decorated their side of the table.

The house of Hedwen sat opposite of this family, all of them wearing blue. The lord of this house was not nearly as old as Barthol, but still of age, and respected for it. He was flanked by his twin sons, who had grown to become men just like he, and on their side of the table, the soaring eagle was emblazoned.

The house of Cercy, golden yellow in their attire, had an empty seat. Duncan felt guilt rise within him as he saw this, the seat where Anton Cercy was sure to have been seated, if only he and the others had been swifter. It was clear to see that his representing family, now consisting only of his widowed wife and his fatherless daughter, were not too pleased to be here without him. But a noble's duties remained as they were: unyielding.

His eyes soon met a stare that he knew quite well already. The hard, penetrating glare, carried upon pupils narrow and slitted, cat-like. Vyacheslav sat at the far end, swept in clothes of black and red, but far more formal than the heavy coat of leather Duncan had seen him in, when the battle began. His wife, Nadezhda, sat by his side, wearing of course an outfit much befitting the situation; it was as Vyacheslav had said: no matter the occasion, this woman had a dress appropriate for it. Her hair hung loose this time, running down in long locks over her chest, and her lips were darkly red with lipstick.

But most curious, was what sat upon Vyacheslav's shoulder. Perched there with folded little legs, a creature unlike anything he'd seen before, a creature that he had only heard of in rumor. No more than half a meter tall, covered in fur from top to toe, and the head of a slender, elegant cat between its shoulders. It sat there with a small—and it was indeed small, even by this creature's standards—book in its hands, scribbling something upon it. It looked up briefly at Duncan, who couldn't keep eye contact for more than half a second. He swiftly looked away, and the creature returned to its writing.

The Umbral side of the table was the only one left completely empty. Duncan wasn't particularly surprised about this, not after getting told what had happened to Theodor and his family. Even the emblem of the owl cast in moonlight shine had been removed, haphazardly as if it was hurriedly done. It was clear that the Umbral house had become a spot of shame upon the collective nobility, and it was soon to be erased completely.

“We are well aware, thank you.” Vyacheslaw growled from the far end of the conference room, both arms on the table, both eyes on Duncan “Duncan. You may enter.”

Duncan would in all cases rather be free, but duty compelled him, this he knew. He looked once over his shoulder, seeing the only thing that stood out more in this hall of aristocracy more than he did. The children flocked around the massive Mjaln, whose patience was truly endless. He let them tuck at his beard, awe at his size, ask him all kinds of curious questions; few of which were not related to his physique. But as Duncan looked to him, he looked back. A smile took shape behind his beard, and he gave Duncan a nod. His eyes wished him all the best of luck that he needed.

As the door closed, it become surprisingly quiet. The sound of the children's excited voices resounding off the marble walls were suddenly stifled, as if they were never there in the first place. Duncan met all the eyes that fell upon him, and felt their scrutiny. He knew what it was to be examined, having gone through such processes times innumerable on the battlefield by inspectors, but never like this. These eyes scoured him clean for even the slightest sign of mistrust or weakness. Like vultures, their eyes picked him clean. This was the game they played. He had so dearly wished not to become part of it.

For a conference hall, it was hauntingly silent. The only sound that disturbed it was that of Duncan's boots meeting the floor as he made for a chair that Vyacheslav had gestured for him to take. It was a chair for the Umbrals, and as he sat down, he couldn't help but feel the weight of misplacement. This was not his seat, not his room—not his situation. And yet, here he sat. His eyes wandered aimlessly from face to face, before rising upward, to the ceiling. Instead of a painting this time, it was a glass dome, a window. A light rainfall fell upon it, the lingering water distorting the light of noon that pierced through. The cloud-speckled skies were cleanly visible, and Duncan figured that there may have been some symbolism with it. Transparency for the gods, perhaps? Such a shame that they did not care for transparency for the people. It seemed that eyes that looked to the heavens, were too busy to look to the streets.

“Do you know why you're here, Captain Ross?” the voice of Barthol Rex was well befitting his age, and yet it carried an authority that must have accumulated throughout his years of lordship. Duncan turned his eyes on the eldest man in this room, and met his stare. Though his voice carried no weakness, there was a softness in his eyes; one of grandfatherly care. This was quite an odd contrast, Duncan found.

“Well... yes. Because I'm the captain.” Duncan answered warily, uncertain how to answer that question. His uncertainty was repaid with a light chuckle from another end of the table.

“In other words: no.” Lord Hedwen said, seeming quite so amused. As Duncan looked toward this one, there was most certainly not the same sympathetic look in his eye, as the one residing in Barthol “I told you this was a waste of time. Why are we bringing in a captain, and not the chieftain? At least someone who has actually been in a conference room before! I mean... just look at him.” his disdainful look pierced through Duncan “He's even still wearing his armor.”

“Because the chieftain was sitting on his ass, doing nothing while we put down Theodor and his miserable house!” Vyacheslav snapped back, fangs bared and pupils narrowed “I am quickly growing tired of these Myaani and their fear of getting involved beyond their own closest concern. They call it objective solitude—I call it pissing their loincloths at the first sight of political presence. By this right, I am starting to believe Duncan has been in more conference rooms than that... dog.” at that notion, Duncan noticed the cat creature sitting on Vyacheslav's shoulder shaping  growing a little smile. It hadn't said a word, and in general seemed quite disconnected from the ongoing conversation—but this little bit, it definitely noticed. Its tall ears seemed to twitch in direction of whoever was speaking.

Lord Hedwen and Vyacheslav stared down one another for a few seconds thereafter, eyes clashing together like jousters at a tournament. And it seemed like Vyacheslav won this one, as Lord Hedwen uttered a displeased “Tch”, and leaned back in his chair, withdrawing. His sons muttered something to each other, something that apparently was worth chuckling over, but then the hall fell silent once more.

“Lord Hedwen might be an obnoxious fop,” from Duncan's left, a woman's voice spoke up. He turned to see that it was Lady Cercy, the widowed wife of Anton, who was speaking. Though she was a fair woman indeed, the look she gave Lord Hedwen was nothing short of hideous—brief, but hideous. This hideousness faded swiftly, though, as she looked to Vyacheslav “but he didn't lie. Duncan here could clearly do with some informing. This was mainly your idea... would you like the honors?”

Vyacheslav could only agree. He nodded once, and turned his bestial stare on Duncan “We haven't spoken much, Duncan, so I figured this is as good a time as any. Before I say anything, I'd like to ask a few questions first. How long have you been a captain?”

The question sent Duncan drifting far back into the past, and far beyond the horizon, into the wastelands once more. Most of it was a blur, the days always seeming to fade together—he had usually remedied this with his journal, but he found that he had been neglecting that thing recently—but this he remembered quite clearly. He led a hand to his chest, where the medal was embedded in the steel of his chestplate.

“About four years.” Duncan said, truthfully “Most captains would have advanced further by now, but I... well, I messed up somewhere along the line, and had to forfeit my promotion.”

“Messed up?” Lord Hedwen asked, his eyes predatory and curious “Elaborate.”

Duncan suppressed any desire to snap back at Lord Hedwen; he knew it wasn't his place. Instead, he answered as directly as he could “I got my squad killed.” he said with no small amount of regret on his tongue “Before I took in Ramund as my sergeant, my poor leadership got all the others butchered, one by one. My squad never was the largest, but... I think I was the only one to lead a squad of two. That is, until Rose came in... and another kid named Angus, but he didn't last long.”

Hushed words traveled through the small crowd of people gathered around the table, like ripples in a lake emitting from a thrown stone. But Duncan did not regret throwing it—he would not lie today. He would let himself be judged under the stare of this murder of crows, and whether they liked what they saw or not, he truly did not care. Soon enough, Vyacheslav silenced the whispers with a gesture of his hand. His penetrating stare did not waver.

“I am well acquainted with the rigors of the front lines.” he said, to Duncan's wonder “Not in person, but I am not stupid, Duncan. I don't let myself be fed with Deum's propaganda, those that would claim that the front lines see victory every day, that the demons are being culled like sheep at slaughtering season. No... it's more the other way around, isn't it?”

In the silence that followed, Duncan felt his throat clench. He recalled the smell of rot that rode the hot winds, emitting from scattered bodies that had lain too long in the sun. He recalled the dog tag duties, the countless names of soldiers claimed by the desert, their stomachs opened to spill into the endless sands. The memories were like barbs, cutting and slicing at him from the inside, and Vyacheslav's words only coaxed more of these memories forth. He asked him to think back upon something that was best left forgotten, yet things that would never truly leave those who had seen them. But Duncan evicted them from his head as swiftly as they came, banishing them from his mind with peaceful thoughts instead. The misty lake, the full moon casting its shine upon Fairlandish meadows. He did not need to contemplate the things he had seen and done on the front lines, to remind himself what it was like out there.

“Unfortunately so.” He said, wary of what words came out “Death is a stubborn inhabitant out there, refusing to leave us alone. Casualties like these... they are, in all ways, inevitable. We have to grow callous to them rather swiftly, or we're sure to snap. That's what happened to this Angus kid I mentioned... he took the easy way out.”

Vyacheslav turned a look on those around him “I'll take this from the horse's mouth long before anything the local town criers spew out. You heard the man... survival is a candle in a sand storm out there. Can we then blame him for having lost his squad, knowing the dangers that lurk around every corner? If anything... this is the exact reason why I have chosen you, Duncan.” he said, this time turning his stare on Duncan. There was a sincerity in them, a scrutinizing glare that seemed like it knew more about Duncan than he himself did. Even the cat creature had turned its large eyes on him, silently examining him while its little right hand scribbled onward as if it had a mind of its own.

“With all due respect,” Duncan said “you have yet to tell me what you have chosen me for.”

Vyacheslav leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. His wife sat silently by his side, looking Duncan over with eyes that seemed far more skeptical than those of her husband. Duncan wanted to return her stare with a smile, but he was afraid she would bite his head off. And considering what creatures he sat before, threats like these were surely not to be taken lightly.

Vyacheslav nodded his head once toward the door “You know better than I, better than anyone, what is out there. What is approaching from beyond the misty veil. We all know that they are demons, indeed, but very few of us have actually met one... let alone fought one. The knowledge we possess about demons is in many ways mere theories, but when they come crashing at our gates, we can't work with probabilities and assumptions. We need the real thing.” he looked away from the door “We need you, Duncan.”

Duncan, at first, felt flattered. He was happy to share the knowledge he had gathered throughout the years, though he couldn't help but wonder why Vyacheslav was making such a big fuss about it. But shortly after, he realized why—and this realization came to him as a dagger in his chest. He looked up at the Krov lord with wide eyes “You... you don't mean that—“

“But I do.” Vyacheslav interrupted him, having no patience for his stuttering “The men out there will need someone to look up to. They will need to know that they are confident, specialized hands. They will need to be able to put their faith in someone—someone who they know is well acquainted with the encroaching enemy. I don't claim to be the greatest battle tactician, but I know the importance of morale; if these men rout, we might as well open our gates and bid the demons welcome.” he leaned forward, eyes yet piercing through Duncan's, both hands on the table between the two of them “Have you ever commandeered nine thousand soldiers, Captain Ross?”

Duncan felt paralyzed. The weight of the eyes was too heavy to bear, and he felt as if he would collapse under them. Of all things he had expected when entering this room, this was certainly not one of them. He looked around, eyes refusing to blink, staring haunted at all the lords and ladies that seemed so expectant of him. He slowly looked back at Vyacheslav, where even the little cat creature had ceased its writing, waiting 'till Duncan had given his answer.

“You must be joking.” Duncan declared “This makes no sense. I told you already: I messed up my promotion. I'm leading a squad of two for goodness sake—what makes you think I can commandeer nine thousand!?”

“I told you this was a bad idea.” Lord Hedwen snorted from the other end of the table, but was promptly slapped across the cheek by Lady Cercy. A small chuckle followed throughout the gathering.

“I don't.” Vyacheslav said with a tone of honesty in his voice “Not yet. But you are the best shot we have—and you are already a captain. You have the training and the potential. You would likely crash and burn if I put you out there here and now, but you can be taught. No tome can match what knowledge you harbor, what experience you have. You know their behavior and their physiology, which makes you not only the best fit teacher for this problem, but the best fit commander too. We just need to... polish you a bit.” he said, seeming to examine Duncan yet again “There is a weakness in you. A certain... fragility. You'll need to learn to suppress that, or you'll shatter like delicate glass when the soldiers need you the most.”

This was insanity. Duncan was convinced that this whole council had gone collectively mad, and this was all just a product of their distress from facing certain death at the hands of the demons. But the more he looked into Vyacheslav's unwavering stare, the more he came to realize that there was no backing out. All he wanted, was for Ramund to come and take his place... do his dirty work for him... again.

Suddenly, he felt disgusted with himself. This desire repeated itself within him, and he came to spite that they had even been born. Was this the man he had become? How could he wear the captain's title, when he had thoughts like these filling up his head? He looked at himself, and realized just how pathetic he had become. All he wanted was to run away, pretend all these problems did not exist, leave it all to be solved by someone else... but he couldn't run forever. This fact hit him hard, and it hurt, but it was a pain that could—and would—drag him from the depths of his own self-pity.

His thoughts fell to his mother. If she could look into who he was behind the obscuring facade, would she still say that Kendrew, his father, was proud of him? Would she still entrust herself to defend her from the rigors of the world, while he himself would not think twice to run for his life?

His thoughts fell to Ramund. For too long, had he felt as if he was a burden to him, but he was just too patient to say anything about it. For too long did had he let Ramund take the heaviest load, all because he was too afraid—too weak.

And finally, his thoughts fell to Rose. Though the world was on fire, though the lives of millions were thrown into jeopardy, it was always her face that appeared in his mind, when he had to remind himself why he hadn't killed himself yet. All things were at stake, nothing was safe any longer, but it seemed as if there was one particular thing that was more worth saving than others—and its name was Rose.

He took a deep breath. In came the musty air of the council room, but out came his doubts, his hesitations, and his fears. He looked up into Vyacheslav's beating stare, and returned one that would rise to rival it.

“So be it.” he said, plunging in with both legs “You've convinced me. I see now where my duty lies, and I have no intention of forsaking it. When do we begin?”

To this, Vyacheslav smiled. His left fang peeked out from behind his lips, and his eyes gleamed with excitement—even the cat creature smiled, now having tucked away its notes. He stood up, rising to his mighty height, and held out his hand to Duncan.

Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 11
Introducing a character I have been looking forward to writing more about. Mysterious little Xandra... oh where will your journey take you? Good question! I don't think I know yet! That's what makes writing so enjoyable. :D
There was a taste in the air. There was a taste in... reality. This reality, at least. Her heavy tongue moved between her lips, but reached no further than the steel mask that covered her face from the nose and down. Still, she could taste it. The air. There was something different this day, though she couldn't tell if it was any different from yesterday; she could, in fact, not tell the difference between today and yesterday at all. Day and night meant so little down here, where the only light was the dim glow of candles at her side, spilling her silhouette over the grimy walls like black paint. The shadows that coiled around her never ceased to keep their secrets of the outside world, shrouding her in ignorance and solitude. Even so, she could feel it, this day. This day, there was something different. It hung on the fringes of reality, drifting through empty space like autumn leaves, settling on her tongue. It tasted of importance. Of significance. Though she could not tell the days apart, not while the sun and the moon were but fading memories of hers, not while she had forgotten what it was like to be free of these chains, she knew that she would remember this one. This day. It was not like the others.

She looked up slowly, her eyes heavy as always, so heavy she had to struggle not to close them. She had not slept in... a long time. She couldn't tell how long, exactly. Maybe it was a day, maybe it was a month—both seemed equally possible. She wished to sleep, so dearly she did, but it was no easy task, when her body was on fire. At least, that was how it felt. Every day, the burns that covered most of her lithe body felt as if they were as much on fire as the day she received them. But pain was an illusion; this she had been forced to learn all too swiftly. What was pain, but her body telling her that these burn marks were real, and still there? She knew this perfectly well, and needed no reminder. And yet, there it was, the pain. The agony that kept her awake. How she wished her brother, Lucius, would return soon with more balm.

Though the candles' glow was dim and dying, she always had to squint when raising her eyes to the little shrines before her. There they stood, on the mossy floor before her, their shadows cast unto the walls just as well. Hrumalz, the warrior patron, and Lyrras, the lifegiver. These two were her respite in loneliness; her refuge in agony. She found that though they were made of stone and often quite silent, she treasured their company nonetheless. Sometimes, their shadows on the wall seemed to dance and come alive, playing out a tiny theater performance before her. Lyrras would always rise to teach her the virtues of mercy, of self-forgiveness, and the value of staying alive; and in turn, Hrumalz would teach her strength, courage, and to never relent on those who deserved none. She loved Lyrras for the comfort he gave her in painful hours, and she loved Hrumalz for the strength he put in her, so that she could better fight this unwelcome inhabitant of hers. For she knew, all too well, that it was not just her, Hrumalz, and Lyrras who shared this room. There was one more... and he was here right now.

“Xandra...” he said, his tongue the shadows, his voice the fires of a darker world. She closed her eyes and hoped that his presence was just the product of her imagination, but she knew, deep inside, that he was as much there as she was. She could feel him, sense him lurking about in the darkness that surrounded her, swimming in between dimensions like a shark through seaweed. Her hands clenched and she pulled at the chains that locked her in place and kept her arms raised to either side like angel wings.

“...You are a tenacious one. This, I grant you. Most men would have succumbed to wounds like yours many months ago, and yet, here you sit. Still you breathe, still your hearts beats away in your little chest, and still your mind is your own...” he paused briefly, before his voice appeared in another shadowy corner of her prison “...somewhat.”

“I do not hear you, filthy one.” she snarled through her teeth, gaze stalwartly kept on the shrines and the candles before her “Though my wounds are grievous, though agony keeps me awake at night, I do not feel you. My gaze is turned heavenwards; I do not see you.” her words were spoken with unshakable vigilance, defiance even in face of an immortal and ancient presence such as his “You waste your time, hellish one. Sear my body as much as you wish, for in my soul there is only light. You shall never have it.”

A cold air swept through the room, followed by silence. She did not dare to blink while staring at the shrines before her, in fear that her eyes would open to his ungodly face. She had seen it before, and just like his fire had seared itself unto her skin, his eyes had seared themselves into her mind. Jewels of an unholy world, surrounded by fire and fangs, drenched in endless rivers of damned blood... this was the face of the great king of hell. Six tongues, all of which she felt were whispering in her ear, whispering from the darkness.

“Your faith is... admirable.” the darkness seemed to twitch with every word he spoke, and in the corner of her eyes, she could see him move, slithering like a serpent in the fringes of the candles' comforting glow “But faith, my dear, is but brittle glass. So easily shattered. Indeed, it may feel like steel, but you will only know how delicate it is, when your own is broken. And I do promise you, Xandra, that even yours cannot withstand what is coming for this world.”

She snorted violently “I know of these demons, in the south. I felt their presence long before the first messenger dove flew over the Godshill walls. My heart, my soul, and my faith lies with the gods... but my sword, hellish one, is forged from your fires. Mock away, mock 'till all six tongues are weary, you will never break me. Every day, I grow stronger; every day, my grip of the curse you put upon me tightens. Through it, I sense your demons as if I were one of them; I feel their will as if it was my own, their hatred as if it was my own... their strength, as if it was my own.” behind the steel mask on her face, her lips split in a vicious smile “How does it feel, I wonder, to have your precious flame wielded by a mere mortal?”

“HAH!” all six tongues shouted, and it was deafening “You wield NOTHING! In comparison to my inferno, you are but a spark, Xandra! Your tenacity is impressive, but your hubris leads you astray, deludes you. Have your beloved gods not taught you humility toward your betters, girl?”

“You are not my better.” she growled through gritted teeth, through the horrendous mask on her face “You are a plague, an overfed rat, and nothing more. There is a reason why the gods shine from their heavenly thrones while you rot away in the Netherworld, filth. I am not afraid of you. Others may fear you, but I know that the light of heaven will keep me from your shadows. Divinum lumen, protege me.”

“High Speech and prayers cannot save you today, Xandra.” he said again, drowning out her words with his voice of gnashing teeth and darkness “Your gods tremble in their golden thrones. The skies split with the coming of a new king... and it is not of your dear brother that I speak. Much can be said about Lucius Pius Deum, true, yet he is still but a mortal man, ruling over other mortal men. Let him rule his measly empire. It will matter naught, when the world burns.”

Xandra's jaws tightened, as the darkness spoke. Her frail heart pounded away in her chest, angry blood crashing through her veins. It was as if the candles dimmed and the shrines seemed to pale, simply at the mention “I know of whom you speak.” she said, reluctantly.

“I know you do.” the darkness continued to slither, all six tongues of the demon king seeming to writhe like phantasmal serpents in the fringes of her eyes, lurking somewhere between realities “Say his name.”

Xandra sneered from behind her mask. The name lingered on her tongue, and it tasted vile. She spat it out like the filth it was “Omnos.” she growled “An inflated name for an inflated threat. The rumor spreads like wildfire across our lands, but the people are strong, and they will know to keep their faith where it belongs: with the Five, and only the Five. The light of heaven will chase away the shadows that infest their minds, and they will wonder why they were ever lead astray. My brother will see to this. My brother will give them the truth that they deserve.”

Xandra had expected more mockery from any of the six tongues of the demon king. She had expected him to whisper words of vice in her ear, to try and shake her faith... but he did no such thing. Instead, he laughed. Quiet at first, but growing louder and louder, until Xandra could barely hear her own thoughts. She squeezed her eyes shut under his roaring guffaw and she tried to drown it out with hastened prayer. But then, at the bat of an eye, it was all swept away.

Footsteps. Xandra jerked her head upwards, as she heard footsteps from the darkness, from the staircase that led down into her solitary prison. Hope swelled up inside of her and pushed away the anger and the hatred, for she knew who was approaching. The light of a lantern washed down the stairs, growing brighter and brighter with every moment passing.

“Sister!” his voice was eager, merry, excited. She looked up to see him standing there before her, bathed in the light of his raised lantern, bathed in... something quite different. A white toga like her own covered him from his golden hair and all the way down to his sandals. A purple shawl was strapped to his shoulder, sweeping down across his hip, and on his head, a ceremonial laurel wreath. Realization struck.

“Is it today?!” she asked in sudden distress, furious at herself for forgetting.

“It is, dear sister.” Lucius answered with a blazing smile on his face as he set the lantern down and moved to her chains “The crowds are gathering as we speak. I have my speech all prepared, and the priests have seen good omens in the skies. They believe this day will mark a milestone in the history of Godshill—nay, the world!” he held a smiling pause “As do I, of course.”

Xandra watched with befuddled eyes as Lucius fiddled with a small keyring, standing before the massive manacles that bound her arms. Confusion conquered the anger in her “What... what are you doing?”

Lucius gave her an incredulous look “What does it look like? I wouldn't want you to miss my coronation, dear sister.”

Xandra's heart felt like it stood still for hours, even though only a second passed “But... but I'm not done praying!” she exclaimed, uncertain of what else to say.

“You are.” Lucius said, quite firmly “You've been down here long enough. I've seen what you can do, how well you've tamed your curse. There is a world out there waiting for you, dear sister, and I can think of no better day than today, for you to see it all.”

Xandra tried to speak, but was interrupted as the manacles suddenly burst open. Her left arm crashed to the ground, suddenly aching horribly. The magic in her had kept her muscles whole and strong, but it had been so long that she had clean forgotten how to use them. This kind of movement in her joints felt alien, uncomfortable, and it only got worse as Lucius released her from the second set of manacles too. On her knees, she fell forward, her palms striking the cold granite floor, her arms shivering like pines in a hurricane. She needed time to readjust, this she knew, but Lucius gave her none.

“Aren't you excited?” he asked her as he eagerly brought her to her feet, an arm under her left shoulder “The heavens smile on us today, dear sister. Just you watch. This day is a blessed one, and I mean to make the most of it.”

She was given no chance to answer his question, before he marched onwards, up the stairs, even though her legs felt as if they could fall off at any time. It had been so long. How she had hoped she could at least have prepared for this... but deep inside, there was something in her that could not stop smiling.

However, in the very second the door went open, her eyes felt as if they had caught fire. Deep into the roots they were scorched, and even though she squeezed them shut, the bright light still pushed through her eyelids. She winced and brought up her hand to shield them, but her arm was gripped by Lucius before she could manage.

“You need to adjust.” he said with great command in his voice “You've spent long enough time down there in the darkness. It's time to return to the light.”

Xandra shivered, but she knew he was right. Even with her eyes shut they burned, aching as if they were filled with acid. And it only became worse, when she opened them up. Her sight was but a painful blur and her eyes screamed to be shut, but she resisted. She resisted and let the pain wash away the darkness that had settled in her eyes. She felt as the shadows receded, and with them, the pain.

It had been so long since she had seen color. The only sight she had woken up to, in all this time, was the black of shadows and the grey of musty stone. She could hardly even recognize the colors that now opened up before her, let alone put names on them. It was like a kaleidoscope. A bed swept in vibrant velvets, carpets everywhere—even on the walls—and portraits of people she had never seen before, yet somehow felt she had to know. But most vibrant of all, was the sunlight that cascaded in through the windows. Awe took her tongue as she stood there, her mind racing to distinguish the colors that filled up this small yet vivid office. But soon, as soon as she dared, she looked to the window instead, and the world that stretched out before her. Mountain ranges as tall as gods rose near and far, all the way into the most distant of horizons, there they stood with their hats of snow and their bodies of ancient stone. She could hardly even recognize the land, despite that she had grown up here... but it had been so long. How she had missed the sight of the mountains that encircled the sacred valley like unflinching guardians. And the valley itself was nothing short of spectacular either. The long, rocky plains that stretched all the way to the foot of the most distant mountain, a snowless tundra where no trees grew, and the sun touched everything.

“Are you adjusted?” Lucius asked, looking into her eyes, seeming mostly to inspect that they were still intact. Xandra looked back at him, and the joy that had bloomed inside of her now shined through a wide smile on her pale lips. Lucius took this as more than enough of an answer and returned the smile.

“And this is just the beginning.” he said, but what he meant by that, he didn't tell. Xandra had no chance to ask before he carried her onward, pushing open the doors of the office.

The throne room was one of the things that had seemed to linger in her mind, and it had not changed one bit. The same throne of gold and silver stood towering tall over the long walkway before it, where peasants and pilgrims and nobles alike would come to seek the council or the blessings of the king, for whatever endeavor they had on their minds—but in face of the king, all were equally humble, this she remembered clearly. The same banners hung from the great pillars that held the church-like roof aloft, flying the proud emblem of Godshill, the sacred swan with wings raised like an angel. But there was one thing that was different from what she could remember. Where this hall had always been a refuge of peace and quiet, a place where she could feel safe in her childhood years, there was a noise this time. A noise of shouting, of an excited crowd. It came from outside the door.

As Lucius led her to a nearby window, she quickly realized why this was. No matter the pain that still lingered in them, her eyes shot open wide at the sight of what had gathered there, just on the other side of the door. Hundreds, if not thousands of citizens, flocked together in excitement, in anticipation of what was soon to happen—and who was soon to be crowned. Steel fences had been set up at the bottom step of the staircase that lead to the door, and a podium had been set up before the crowd—empty now, but she knew this wasn't going to last. Some of the citizens of Godshill flew small flags bearing the swan symbol of their proud nation, while others carried large signs that displayed some kind of political slogan in favor of Lucius. She was awestruck, and proud. Proud to know that this man, her brother, was such a beloved man with the people—and awestruck for the very same reason. She looked to him, and saw him smile.

“Stay here, sister. I'd want you to watch, but you deserve a better place than among the rabble.” his smile grew a little “Will you pray that I can deliver my speech properly?” he asked.

Xandra smiled back, even though she knew he couldn't see it through the steel mask on her face “I already am, brother.”

Lucius carefully bent her head forward and placed a soft kiss on her forehead, before letting her stand on her own, albeit reluctantly. She struggled to stand, but she did her best not to show it—this was not the time for Lucius to worry. This was his moment, and she didn't want to draw upon herself any unnecessary attention. Her mouth was silent, but her eyes wished him all the best—and with that, he left her there and went forward to greet the crowd.

Flung open were the doors, and the cheer of the crowd poured over him like a tidal wave. His golden hair rose in the brisk mountain winds, glimmering like a godly weave in the sunlight that fell over him. His arms were outstretched to either side like he was ready to embrace every single citizen that now flocked before him in the thousands, crying his name with eager anticipation and love. His ceremonial toga flapped in the hard winds, but he did not flinch, did not stagger, for this day would paint his image for eons to come. Guards stood in a half-circle around him, a ward of armor and spears, steel protectors whose plates were like mirrors in the radiant sunlight. The crowd tossed flower petals in the handfuls, sometimes whole flowers as well, and a few of the farmers from the outskirts of the realm had the strange custom of presenting a live lamb as a gift for the new king; not that the lamb would ever get that close, but it was an amusing sight, Xandra found, seeing the lamb bleat away together with the cheering crowd.

Lucius' smile was as winningly charismatic as always, the smile that the wives across the entire world wanted for their husbands. His hands were raised in greeting of the people, all from the nearest citizen pushing up against the fence, and to those who cheered from the balconies of their houses on the other side of the courtyard. The crowd was everywhere; every inch of space was filled up with a citizen that wanted to show his or her love for the new king, all of them wanting to be heard equally much. Xandra watched with a great swelling sensation of pride as her brother stepped up to the podium. There was a magical rune painted upon the podium's surface, and corresponding runes on the facade of the palace—though many, many times larger. Xandra could hardly close her eyes, and her own smile was stuck to her face. She watched eagerly as Lucius, with just a single gesture of his right hand, silenced the crowd. The cheering and the whooping and the flower-tossing quieted down, even the lamb ceased to bleat. It was astonishing... suddenly, there was only the sound of the wind moaning over the heads of the people. But that would not last.

“My blessed people,” Lucius began, his voice low and calm, but scattered for all to hear through the magic of the runes “you are the flesh and the bones of this nation; the strong and unflinching defenders of everything just, true, and holy. You are the hands that toil on the fields, the heart that pumps the flow of trade through the veins of our realm, and the legs that carry us on the path of light. In comparison to you, the people of Godshill—and the rest of our proud nation—I am but a humble man. Let not these pretty clothes and this dazzling title fool you... I am your servant, and I aim to serve. All that you need, all that you could ever want...” he said, so clean and so delicate in his words and his body language as he spoke “...I will give to you. It is not my place to take, to oppress, but to give. What do I not owe you, the people, for keeping our valiant nation alive? For growing food for our tables; for sewing clothes for our bodies; for building walls for our homes?”

There was a murmur amongst the crowd, the nodding of heads, the slow agreement to Lucius' words. Xandra even gave a few instinctive nods of her own, though she was unaware of it. Lucius slowly lowered his hands, and she saw how his smile faded slightly—but she knew this was very much on purpose. She knew that Lucius was perfectly aware of every facet of his speech; every emphasis on every word, every twist of every gesture, every turn of every expression. He knew what he was doing.

“The death of our king has struck deep in my heart, as I am certain it has for us all. It was a tragedy without measure, let there be no doubt. But I believe, with great certainty, that the heavens recognized how age was taking its toll on Magnus. With age came tiredness, tiredness that evolved into laziness, and it did not take long before he had lost his otherwise so firm grip on his own crown. He ate and he drank while he was not out spending the realm's coin on hunting trips for his own amusement. Magnus was a good man, but alas, age had changed him. It was no coincidence that Morrin took him into his arms at this time.” he straightened up his back and took in a deep breath.

“What I speak of, of course, is the waste of your labor that Magnus had conveyed. In his stead, I will not make that same mistake! As I take my place upon this throne, it will be of my greatest priority that you, the people, will not toil away on the fields so that you may sate the desires of a gluttonous king—but to bring back the pride of this great nation! Too long have we stagnated in lethargy; too long have we lingered, waiting our years away—but we are done waiting! How can we wait when hell itself knocks on our front doors? How can we wait when we know that traitors and terrorists exploit this period of great turmoil for their own nefarious intents? We cannot, I say! For centuries upon centuries, Godshill has been a beacon of hope and safety for this world, and we will not let our legacy be squandered! By the responsibility invested in me by the heavens above, I swear to you now, I will reclaim the glory that we once held so dear! Together, we will break these manacles of inaction, and we will remind the world: Godshill still exists! And we are as strong as ever before!”

As the crowd rose once again to cry their love and their excitement for Lucius, Xandra too began to applaud from behind the window. She watched as he stood there, arms wide open like he was bathing in the glory that his people were showering him with. Xandra couldn't stop smiling.

“He's good, isn't he?” her heart felt as if it would jump out of her chest as an unfamiliar voice spoke up just beside her. Her smile was killed and she felt instinctive demonic energies boil up inside of her, ready to defend herself, ready to slaughter... but all that quickly proved unnecessary, as she saw the man who stood there. He was a dark elf, a strangely short one at that, with a head shaven clean and a smile so smooth and charismatic it could rival her brother's. He wore a monocle held to his eye by three leather straps around his bald head, and he was clothed in neat and noble clothing; something she could only recognize from royal advisors and their like. But there was something about this man that didn't strike her as an advisor—even though he did have the necessary guile in his eye for the task.

There was a silence between the two for a while, not that the dark elf seemed to mind much. But Xandra did. She suddenly recalled who she was, why she wore this steel mask. She took a few steps backward and shook her head slowly, eyes in the marble floors “I... I wasn't supposed to be seen.”
The dark elf's smile only seemed to grow at the notion of this “We do a lot of things that we're not supposed to, in life—it is in our nature, sweetheart. But it's fortunate that it was me you bumped into... or rather, that I bumped into you, and not anyone else. We're already quite acquainted, you see, though not directly.”

Xandra stared for what felt like a full minute at the dark elf before her. She tried as best she could to dig up old memories of someone like this, but nothing in her inner library matched. And she knew that she would surely be able to recognize a man as aesthetically unsettling as him. Her eyes narrowed, but she didn't have to speak for him to get the message.

“Perhaps Lucius has mentioned me?” he asked, seeming a little hopeful to begin with, then disappointed when he received no answer “Ah, typical of him to keep our relationship secret... tsk. Oh well. My name is Orlan, a learned alchemist, and I do believe you are quite familiar with one of my creations.” he raised a jeweled finger to point at Xandra's shoulder, where a patch of burned flesh was exposed. Xandra looked down at it, then quickly covered it up with the white cloth of her toga.

“The balms.” she finally said, muttered behind the steel mask “Oh, the balms!”

“Yes, the balms!” Orlan echoed her, a little louder, his voice resounding throughout the throne hall “Goodness, why don't I change my name to 'the balms', as it is seems I'm practically synonymous with it. I dispense and I dispense, but never a word of thanks does your brother give me... I'm beginning to think he's just in it for the balms.”

Xandra felt quite a lot more comfortable now, knowing who this dark elf was. She had only pleasant experiences with his balms, and felt that she had many months of gratitude to repay him. She smiled to him, even though she knew that it couldn't be seen from behind the crude mask—it hurt to smile, with lips burned and skinless, but pain was a triviality “My brother can sometimes seem to be ungrateful, true, but what he does not say, he often feels. I am certain he is quite thankful for what you've done... and if not, then I suppose my own gratitude will have to suffice?”

Orlan seemed unimpressed. He turned his monocled gaze out the window, where the crowds were chanting Lucius' name, flower petals and lambs everywhere. He snorted roughly “I don't know... he seems to have no problem thanking the people for their hard work. Why can't I be thanked for mine?”

Xandra didn't have an answer for that. But as she saw how Orlan's frown couldn't last for long, that his sweet smile returned soon after, she knew that she didn't have to speak at all.

“Isn't he amazing?” he asked her, and bid her step closer to the window with him—which she did “Look at all of them: they're praising him as if he was the sun itself. These people are all sheep, willing to follow their shepherd wherever he goes. He's practically promising them even more war and even more death, but still they toss flowers at him... what kind of rhetoric genius must you be to convince them to toil away just to feed his hungry, hungry war machine?” the words themselves sounded foreboding and dangerous, but Orlan said them with such strange admiration and awe, like a young aspiring artist looking up to a master.

Xandra turned her look on Orlan “Are you a follower of my brother as well, then?”

“Follower?” Orlan asked with some skepticism in his voice “I'm not sure 'follower' is the right term. I wouldn't vote for him, if there was even such a thing as voting. I see myself more of a... fan.” his eyebrows raised “Ah, hush now, he's about to speak!”

And indeed he did. Silence became the crowd once more, eager eyes everywhere, all of them laid on Lucius as he bid them all be quiet. Xandra and Orlan both turned to gaze upon the holy man standing there, swept in the gilded sunlight, swept in his people's love. For a few seconds, there was nothing but the winds—it was as if even the birds had quieted down to listen.

“This is a day of tremendous joy for all of us, dearest citizens, but I know that you all expect me to speak my mind of a certain subject... and what choice do I have, but to oblige?” he asked, laying his hands on the podium before him, putting on quite a sincere expression “I speak of course of the downfall of the integrity of heaven. Or as it is better known: 'Omnos'. Rumor has spread far and wide, and I believe we all know that rumors can become twisted as they are recited time and again, leaping from mouth to mouth. Word is that I, your king... am also a god.” he shook his head “Let it be known far and wide, that this is not the case.”

Xandra gave a sigh of relief, deeply pleased that Lucius killed that insane rumor. She saw how some uncertain looks were exchanged among the crowd, disturbed murmurs, and then a few people exchanging coins; probably people who were betting whether or not the rumors were true. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Orlan seeming completely unfazed... and he was still smiling. Smiling like he knew something.

Lucius cleared his throat, and the crowd silenced. He leaned in a little closer and let an examining gaze drift across the crowd, eyebrows heavy and smile returning “But does that mean Omnos himself is but a wild rumor too? Hah... far from it.” Xandra's relief was struck down, and in its place, dread rose.

“He is as real as the word of him, my people! I speak to you not as a god, but as the envoy and the herald of a god—a god who will embody all, and to whom all other gods will kneel. From the pages of primordial history he has awoken, a being that created all, gave birth to all, and thus governs... all. He is the most ancient one, Omnos, the one whose existence preceded everything—even the concept of existence itself! Our mortal minds cannot comprehend his divinity, but he has spoken to me, as he has spoken to our high priests before. He said to me: 'Lucius, king of kings, it is by your hand that the world shall unite under my grace; for my love is eternal, and my will absolute. My children have watched this world for eons, but a thousand gods and spirits will bring nothing but division and discord to this world. Under my grace, and with you as my prophet, the world will finally know peace and unity—from east to west, from north to south, never again shall there be strife between nations, for all nations shall fly my banner.' So I ask you, people of Godshill: why do we let ourselves divide among thousands of divine entities, when now arises one who can unite us all? It is in a world divided, that the demons shall destroy us, one by one! But together—together we are strong! The time of polytheism has passed... and in its place, the god of gods will bring an eternity of peace, of unity, and unending light to this world!”

Xandra was at a loss for words. Even in her own head, there was nothing but stunned silence—all while the crowd resumed their cheering for the words of her brother. Or at least whom she had thought was her brother, but now seemed like nothing but a stranger. Who was this man who wore her brother's face? For what felt like minutes, she didn't breathe. Only when she turned to look at Orlan, did she.


“—Don't understand?” Orlan turned his monocle-adorned gaze on her, slowly, his hypnotic smile stronger than ever “It is actually not that complicated, sweetheart. Simple enough for even the most common man to understand, as a matter of fact.” he looked out the window again, to where Lucius had his fist raised in glory, letting himself wash in the tide of cheers from the crowd “Being king is a treacherous thing, you see. Think for a moment about all the kings before him... Julius the Merciful; Decimus the Glorious; Tiberius the Valiant—do you see a pattern here? Each and every one of them have some positive adjective tied to their name, and it is through it that they are remembered. The history of Godshill is so long that the entire reigns of all the kings must be boiled down to these simple words, so that even the simple peasant knows who they are. So when history will remember you upon this single word... it is in the king's best interest to make sure that it is positively loaded.”

“But this is heresy!” Xandra burst out, pointing angrily at the stranger who stood out there in her brother's skin “This Omnos is all lies, all fiction! He can't just squander all gods and spirits for... for a fairy tale!” she howled furiously, her voice resounding off the distant walls of the throne room, and even now she could hear the laughter of the demon king—clearer than ever.

“Oh, but he can.” Orlan said, sounding genuinely impressed, his eyes still lingering on Lucius “That's what makes him so... amazing. You see, when you're put with the opportunity of making yourself a prophet of a god king, you don't let it slip between your fingers. You just don't. Even the most good-hearted, sympathetic politician would seize this opportunity without a second thought. Lucius' name will be forged as one of the greatest ones in all of history because of this. And can we blame him?” Orlan asked with a shrug “Personally, I think the entertainment is unparalleled. Unmatched. Ten out of ten.”

Xandra stared at Orlan with hellish wrath swelling inside of her, and the cheer of the crowd in the background was only making it worse. How could it come to this? Had the entire nation let itself plunge into arrogance, into hubris, thinking they could choose their own gods? The audacity was infuriating! When she looked out that window, upon the crowd that gathered out there, she felt nothing but disgust... and alienation. This was not her people. This was not the pious folk she had grown up with. These were liars and heretics, traitors and sinners, all in disguise of the good people she once knew. She felt as if the shadows around her grew thick in wake of her revulsion... until she realized, the shadows were actually, in fact, growing thicker.

“Ahh... they're here.” Orlan said. It was in that moment that Xandra's anger faded and gave way to fear. The cheering came to a stop as the same shadow washed out over the crowd, over the rooftops, over the entire city. She turned her eyes heavenward, and saw how the midday sun had been blocked out—not by clouds, but by airships. Massive engines of war that rode the winds came lumbering over the mountaintops behind the city—and there were so many of them. An eclipse engulfed the city, and only then did Xandra realize what was going on.

“Time to go, sweetheart.” she felt Orlan's hand gently pick up hers.

“What? Where are we going?” she asked, looking into his eyes and seeing nothing but guile and excitement “Where are we going?” she repeated.

“On an adventure.” Orlan's words were nearly inaudible through the thunderous roar of engines that suddenly came pouring over the city; hundreds of mechanical monsters filled up the skies, carrying the noble symbol of the swan on their balloons. Was this the world that she had waited so long to be reunited with? So long she had suffered down there in the dark, but she suddenly couldn't tell which one was worse. She stared with stifled eyes at Lucius, and wondered what had become of the brother she had treasured so dearly. But she wasn't left in her wonder for long, as Orlan soon led her out the back door and away from the cheer of the crowd.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 10.5
Introducing a character I have been looking forward to writing more about. Mysterious little Xandra... oh where will your journey take you? Good question! I don't think I know yet! That's what makes writing so enjoyable. :D
About the author
Name: Steen Belhage.
Nationality: Danish.
Race: White.
Gender: Male.
Sexuality: Bisexual.
Political views: Anarchist communist.

What I am about to write about, is a thought that struck me just a few moments ago. I'm writing this information about myself, because I want the readers to know what kind of person is speaking - whether I'm biased in my opinions or not, so that you might have something to stab at, something to poke at and go "That's why he says what he says." It's always nice to have an explanation to something. Which is what I feel that I am missing, right now, regarding the priorities of the world.

I've just read a little piece of art that spoke about the importance of ensuring the lives of our poorest people, of preventing those who have fallen low from taking their own lives, because they feel there is no way back again - financially and emotionally. I absolutely agreed with this. However, the person then proceeded to bashing on homosexual teenagers, who were also taking their own lives due to bullying. The artist in question believed it to be ridiculous that these homosexuals receive more attention than the poor, who both are taking their own lives, but for different reasons. At first, I did not agree with this. The way he presented it made it all sound quite hateful, but as I thought about it, I couldn't make myself look away from the glaring truth.

If you've ever felt like the world has it all backwards regarding what's important, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. Why does it feel like we're glorifying and dramatizing all the smaller things through media (I'm talking about reality stars and what have you), while we're pushing away all these greater things that can, and probably will inflict horrendous consequences on us all, given time? I've decided to make three 'layers' so to speak, regarding importance.

The uppermost important one that I can think of, is nature. You know it. Why is it that we so often hear about the smaller things, the gossip for example, before we are told anything about how we are destroying nature because oil barons and the like need to make a profit? Why is it we're being told about who just married who, who just broke up with who, while we should be hearing about the ever-decreasing number of wildlife, the destruction of entire forests, the pollution of oceans - the list is endless, and yet we still hear next to nothing of it, unless we deliberately go out there and look for it. Why, of all things, was this glaring importance set so low on our list of priorities? Why do Chinese children need to wear masks to go to school due to pollution, while we sit before our television and entertain ourselves with mindless distractions? Because someone needs to make a profit, of course.

If we can elevate this to our highest priority, we will already have secured us a good foothold in surviving. Nature can flourish, and we don't have to stare down the gun-barrel of rising sea levels and dwindling oxygen. Do this, and bravo, we've made a tremendous step in the right direction. However, there is more on the list - naturally. We've now secured the wildlife, but what about ourselves? We're already on a course of solidarity, so why not keep that up? Anyone could tell you about the mind-blowing distinction between rich and poor across the world; even on an international level, just try and compare a couple of countries and see if you can imagine them both with equal wealth. We pride ourselves so greatly with being above animals, but if we just look out our windows once in a while, have a chat with a homeless man, we might come to realize that we're fooling ourselves. As it stands, there is no animal more cruel than man. We won't think twice about pocketing an extra dollar, even if it means some other family going without dinner for tonight. We won't think twice about stepping on countless broken souls who couldn't afford an education, just so that we might revel in our privileged luxury that we take for granted. Solidarity dwindles, and the richer get richer. There are many solutions for this problem, my own being anarchist communism, but in essence, it does not matter how or where or when we approach this problem - as long as it is approached and dealt with. For we are humans, and humans take care of other humans... right?

And here it comes. The third layer of priorities. With solidarity in place, with all the nameless suicide victims who just couldn't make it in life, now given the help they need, we turn to the final issue in this list. Tolerance. Tolerance, on its own, is not a vital component for a functional and sustainable planet, but it is one of the corner-stones for human nature, and something that has been neglected all too many times. Homosexuals, women, people who don't have the same skin color as you - all of these have somewhere along the line faced oppression, hatred, slavery, murder, you name it. But I have placed it as my third list of priorities, because when we look upon this issue from a historical viewpoint, we cannot deny the progress we have made (all while the uppermost priority seems to have gone the other way). That is not to say that we are free from intolerance, of course - there are still those who take their own lives because they cannot live with the rejection of society. Intolerance is a disease that must be treated, or we are bound to become the animals that we thought we weren't.

I'm not going to deny that I am sorely disappointed in humanity. We have much to learn, so much it might all seem daunting. There are those who will shrug their shoulders and care not, because these problems likely cannot be solved in their lifetime - and you know what, they're probably right. There are also those who would say that it can't be done at all, but don't listen to these pessimists. With that attitude, no, it certainly can't. But it doesn't have to be that way. Your own contributions might feel like they aren't making a difference, but if everyone carried thoughts like those, then of course nothing is going to happen. All I am asking, is that we learn to open our eyes to gaze upon the things outside our own private bubble. There is so much wrong with the world, and we are faced with it every day, even if indirectly. Look to the oceans, and you'll see. Look to the streets at night, and you'll see. Look to the people around you, and you'll see. Do that, and you'll already be contributing to world-wide progress; a progress that can't be measured in dollars and cents. It might not feel like much, but no matter what it feels like, it helps, I promise you. Even something as small as a kind-hearted word to your fellow man helps.
Maybe, together, we can ensure a better tomorrow.

Wanna join?
Vyacheslav tapped impatiently on the hilt of his sword, the tip dug into the mud between the granite tiles at his feet. His breath was steady, his eyes ever lingering on the manor before him, his heart beat quiet like a jaguar lurking in the underbrush, ready to pounce as soon as the prey had turned its back. The Umbral manor was undoubtedly one of the more recognizable manors in all of the Sanctuary, and Vyacheslav hated every single brick of it. It rose tall into the sky, several oily black spires standing like bony fingers. The facade seemed almost to meld with the night, one large shadow among thousands others, and taking upon itself a strangely cathedral-like appearance. Mosaic windows, black gargoyles on every surface, rain drops dripping from their ferocious teeth. Vyacheslav's gaze rose even further, up to the heavens themselves, blackened with the high of night and the overshadowing of omnipresent rain clouds. He felt the droplets on his face, but after living a few years in this place, he—and everyone else—had stopped wincing. The way the clouds coiled, and the air felt ominously electric, Vyacheslav knew with certainty. A storm was coming.

“Time is running out.” Edan Wolfe said, standing there at his side, his flinty stare turned on the inky face of the Umbral manor as well “They've been in there too long already. Gods know what the hell they're doing in there, but it can't be good.”

Ramund huffed from Vyacheslav's right “I would lift my spirits a little if I were you, Lieutenant Wolfe. I cannot speak for Pavlov, but Duncan and Rose have been through worse. My faith remains strong.”

Wolfe gave a displeased grunt, but said nothing in return. The waiting game continued. Vyacheslav watched as his commanders trod around the soaked Umbral courtyard, gathering all the soldiers in strict regiments, preparing them for what was to come. His elite took the vanguard, for if there was blood to be shed, Vyacheslav made sure that the Umbrals would stare into Krov eyes, and know who undid them. The only thing that kept his forces at bay, was the empty garden behind this black metal fence, where the flowers and ferns and trees were yet unsullied by battle. But this was not to last. As soon as Matvey was pulled from Theodor's talons, the owl would know the serpent's bite.
Light footsteps approached from behind, not the heavy stomp of sabatons, but the rhythmic click of high heels striking granite. Vyacheslav didn't have to turn around to know who it was, nor even spare her a glance as she took her place beside him.

“You are a fool to trust these weak-bloods, dear husband.” she said, her voice carrying a dominance that would match even Vyacheslav's, an authority that could shrink the soul of any she spoke too—and in the past, it had. Vyacheslav had long since become immune to the slithering of her tongue as she spoke, but it had been a long and painful process, like becoming immune to snake venom by exposing one's self to it every single day. He noticed how both Ramund and Wolfe turned to face this sudden new appearance, and only then did Vyacheslav spare her a glance.

“I was an even greater fool to trust Theodor. Because of him, I've let our son be captured, and I've executed an innocent man. I've little sympathy for Cercy, but it was not just, regardless of what xenophobia he had expressed in the past.” he said, his voice monotone and dark, suppressing the anger inside him that was biding its time to burst.

He looked her over once, and saw that she had dressed quite nicely for the occasion. High heels, as always, but the skirted leather coat matching his own—though shorter—laid over the black and red corset was something new. Blood red jewels adorned with shards of onyx were embedded in her short female horns, and even the tuft on her tail carried trappings of the same colors, black and red. Her fangs were hidden behind red lips that seemed as if they had never smiled, and from Vyacheslav's perspective, it could sometimes seem as if she had forgotten how to. Pale white hair slithered down her chest like albino serpents, while the rest was a flowing avalanche washing down her back. What truly bothered and amazed Vyacheslav at the same time, was that she never failed to dress up for every occasion. No matter how terrible a situation was, she would always find a way to dress accordingly. Even this. Even when her own son's life hung upon a thin thread, it could always wait 'till she had put on the right clothes and set her hair correctly.

“And I can see the rescue is going well.” she said with no small amount of sarcasm in her voice. Her vicious eyes drifted across the minor army that Vyacheslav had assembled here, before the black iron gates of House Umbral “You've summoned the elite, and everything. Now all you're missing, is to actually do something productive, such as bringing back our son.”

Vyacheslav sneered, baring his left fang at his wife “Stay your tongue before you've educated yourself on the situation, woman. Pavlov is in there as we speak, doing what he does best. We'll see our son soon enough, I have no doubt. And when we do, Theodor—and the rest of this damned realm—will know to think twice when crossing the Zakadievs.”

Vyacheslav's teeth gritted and his breath grew heavy, but he suppressed himself. He never sheathed his blade, but he sheathed his wrath, for now. He turned to look between Ramund and Wolfe, who were both pretending not to pay attention to him and his wife, but they were both horribly bad at it. He cleared his throat, and gestured to the two, eyes on his wife “Perhaps you'd like to introduce yourself?”

Ramund and Wolfe both looked over their shoulders, their attentions piqued, but the Krov lady took one look at them and sneered “Perhaps not. I like to remain at a professional distance toward the plebs.” she grouched and eyed Ramund with particular disdain, perhaps not too pleased to be put before someone who was taller than herself, yet not of noble birth.

“Well then I'll do it for you.” Vyacheslav snarled irritably, as he turned to face Wolfe and Ramund “Introducing: my hag of a wife. Her name is Nadezhda, but I'm sure she would prefer to simply be referred to as 'my lady'.”

While Wolfe gave nothing but a nod and a polite “My lady.”, Ramund did the same, but with an elegant and respectful bow as well. Nadezhda gave neither the honor of reciprocation, but she didn't scold them for not bowing low enough either, so she must have been in a good mood, Vyacheslav figured.

Suddenly, he heard shouts and stomping coming from another end of the courtyard. Ramund, Wolfe, and even Nadezhda turned to look at what was going on, but from here, all any of them could see, was the shuffling of soldiers making way for... something. It was only when it came closer, that Vyacheslav recognized his own son... both of them.

“Matvey!” the name burst from his lips as he saw his sons come pushing through the steel crowd, Pavlov shoving through them and Matvey following shortly after—upon Rose's shoulder, albeit. Duncan helped Pavlov push aside the soldiers, voice raised for them to get out the way, right until they stood before Vyacheslav, all four of them.

“Mission accomplished.” Pavlov said as he skidded to a halt, and quickly popped an exaggerated salute “It got a little hairy the last few seconds, but we pulled through it... well, Rose did. Credit must be given where credit is due, hm?”

Vyacheslav's lips rose in a huge, feral smile as he saw Rose set Matvey down, and Nadezhda rushing to embrace the young boy, who was clearly scared out of his mind. Vyacheslav, on the other hand, rushed forward to embrace not Matvey, but Rose. With one hand, he held her entire body close to his chest, her face suddenly buried in his leather raiment.

“We will not forget this service you have given us. I forgive you, for how we first met. I have clearly misjudged you, human.” he let her go, making her stumble backwards in confusion about what just happened. Vyacheslav now turned to the army he had assembled, his furious smile growing ever wider as he thrust his blade into the air and raised his voice.

“Men! Women! Loyal soldiers of mine! You stand at the edge of history! By your blades, we carve ourselves a new chapter in the tale of this beautiful city! By your blades, we rid ourselves of the filth, the dishonor, and the injustice that this house has wrought! For the good of this realm, and for righteousness itself, I, Vyacheslav of Zakadiev, condone this execution!” he roared, to which the army roared back, a hundred steel feet stomping, a hundred swords and spears brought high in battle fervor. The march began, thundering, and the metal gates would not last long under the force of Zakadiev wrath. Vyacheslav spun on his heel, facing Duncan, Rose, Pavlov, and Nadezhda “You four, take care of Matvey. Ramund, Wolfe, bless us with your participation, and join us in victory. Today, we bring an end to the owl's reign of puppet strings and lies.”

He didn't wait to hear what they had to say, as he turned to face the Umbral manor once more, to see how his men brought low the steel gates like were they made of sticks and rope. Glory was indeed at hand, and in one of the windows that stood above the marching army, Vyacheslav saw his prize. His prey. Theodor Umbral, the king of owls.

Vyacheslav, even from down here, could smell his fear. He could see the dread in Theodor's eyes, seeping in between the parasites that crept around in his irises. A truly monstrous grin split Vyacheslav's face in half, his fangs bared to the gums, and they hungered for only one man's flesh. Theodor quickly turned around and fled from the window, but that wasn't going to save him. The hunt was on.

Vyacheslav's entire body suddenly began to emit some strange white steam, like mist. His left hand clutched as he swallowed up the energies that resided in the world around him, letting himself become a conduit of its power. He bent his knees, his left foot sliding back over the soaked granite pavement, and the air around him seemed to warp and twitch, as if he was bending reality itself. His teeth gritted, and even more steam spilled through them, slithering down his braided beard. And when the magic inside him reached its crescendo, he unleashed it all. His form collapsed on itself and suddenly bolted upwards as if shot from a cannon, hurling through the air as nothing but a pale ball of mist. He smashed into the window, but didn't as much as leave a crack in it; his misty body seeped effortlessly through, before returning to flesh, leather, and steel on the other side.

“Run, then!” Vyacheslav roared as he reformed in the blink of an eye, clothes, flesh, blade, and all “Fly, little owl! Fly, and tell yourself that you can evade me. Lying seems to come naturally to you, after all.”

He stood in one of the many corridors of the Umbral manor, this one on a higher floor with a window view of the entire mist-swept city around them. And before him stood Theodor, a delicious look of horror on his pale face. His hands were shivering and his forehead glimmered sweatily in the light of a nearby candle. Both hands were extended, and on them, deep blue magic coiled.

“You can't do this, Vyacheslav... this is murder!” Theodor's voice cracked and sputtered, his lips quivering “My family had no part in this!”

Vyacheslav began to make his way forward, heavy steps bringing him closer, a predatory menace that seemed almost to thicken the shadows around him “The order has been given, and the deed shall be done. I will personally make sure that the name of Umbral will only be remembered with hatred and disdain, when every last one of you have joined Anton at the gallows. But you... you won't have the mercy of a noose. You're mine, Theodor.” the grip of his blade tightened, and his eyes flared “Mine!”

He bolted forward, steps so violent they put cracks in the floor with every step, before he brought down his blade on Theodor—but to no avail. Theodor lashed out with his right hand, forming a small and focused barrier of magic that deflected Vyacheslav's blade. But Vyacheslav's fury was unending. The blade returned in the fraction of a second later, rushing in from below, but once again Theodor formed a barrier, constantly pushing away Vyacheslav's strikes. Like a hurricane beating against a city wall, Vyacheslav's assault was relentless, no matter how many strikes Theodor managed to block. Again and again and again steel met magic, but Theodor's defense was unsteady. Step by step, he was forced backward by Vyacheslav's rage, closer and closer to the wall on the other side of the corridor. It was a dead end, save for a few doors on either side, but it was clear to them both that this would end badly for Theodor, if continued.

Vyacheslav stared into the parasite-infested eyes of Theodor, and could not stop smiling. His leather coat flailed and whipped as his blade flew to all sides, slashing up the portraits and the bookshelves around him, even the wooden walls themselves. But suddenly, much sooner than Theodor clearly had anticipated, there were no more steps to take backward. The wall was met. Vyacheslav burst out in manic laughter.

“Cornered already, little bird?! This is too easy!” he screamed and brought back his blade for a heavier strike that he was certain would power straight through Theodor's defenses—and to some degree, it did. Theodor did not raise his hand to block the strike, but instead, the blade met nothing but black vapor. In the blink of an eye, Theodor had dissolved, and Vyacheslav snapped.
“Not this time!” he shouted and thrust his hand forward, latching unto the magic residue that Theodor had left in his wake. With but a second of focus, listening to and understanding the magic's fabric, Vyacheslav managed to grip its essence—and in that second, he too disappeared into black vapor.

Once again, he bolted through reality, as a shadow this time, rather than an orb of mist. Through walls and even the very fabric of the world itself, his ethereal body was a bullet that traced after Theodor. Not even half a second passed before he was shot out the other end.

Hundreds of blades clashed all around him, the smell of sweat and blood everywhere, drowning out the soft scent of varnished mahogany. The floors moaned and pounded under the weight of countless heavy sabatons stomping away. He had plummeted right into the heat of the ongoing battle, where two steel tides met, under the bright light of a chandelier. It was like a church, here in the main hall of the Umbral manor, with more than enough space for the Zakadiev and the Umbral forces alike. The door was broken down, and chaos had erupted.

“THEODOR!!” Vyacheslav roared over the war cries of the men around him, his feline eyes flinging over their heads to spot that one inky black lord with skin like porcelain. An Umbral soldier rushed for him, blade drawn, but Vyacheslav felled him without even half a thought, as if it was mere reflex. He saw Ramund among the crowd, but the old Mjaln wasn't partaking in the fighting; he was carrying wounded soldiers away and breathing life back into them with his magic. Edan Wolfe was nowhere to be seen.

There was blood everywhere, and every second step Vyacheslav took in his search for Theodor was placed on a dead soldier, Zakadiev and Umbral both. He took great pleasure in seeing his elite soldiers partaking in the battle, flintlocks and slender sabers thrown into elaborate, deadly dance. They were a storm of steel, lead, and gunpowder, trained to such efficiency that taking on five foes at the same time seemed almost effortless. There was not a single part of their bodies idle in the battle; even their tails whipped and lashed out at their enemies, dazing and tripping them. Blood spattered unto their gargoyle masks, and by the look in the enemies' eyes, it was clear to see that they knew they were fighting a monster.

Only then, did Vyacheslav notice. One of the doors in the side of the hall were flung open, and Theodor's black velvets were seen darting through. Vyacheslav's eyes sharpened as he shoved soldiers aside, pushing through the steel masses with some difficulty. He snarled angrily—he was losing him! It was only after he had slashed some bold fool's neck to bits that his path was cleared and his hunt could resume. He bounded for the door, and ripped it open.

But as soon as he slammed it shut behind him, he felt himself be torn right off his feet, hurled through the air by the wrath of magic. Dim candles scattered across the empty parlor were extinguished as he came crashing into a bookshelf in the other end of the room. He groaned as he slid to the floor, staggered by the ambush. His eyes rose to meet him, Theodor, who stood by the closed door, panting wildly, blue magical residue coiling around his open palm. Sweat trickled down his forehead, and it was clear that he knew running wasn't going to do him much good.

“Choosing to bite back, hm?” Vyacheslav growled as he staggered to his feet, leaning on his blade as he did. Despite the jerking pain that consumed the left side of his ribcage, he felt no diminish in his desire for bloodshed. Only more, if anything.

“The trinket truly has put madness in your little brain, Theodor. Bow your head and I'll make this quick.”

Theodor's teeth gritted, and he took a step forward, both fists alight with deep blue magical fire “I didn't want it to get this violent, but you leave me no choice, Vyacheslav. Your trinket has given me more power than anyone in this realm—if not this entire world! Once I'm done with you, I'll wipe out your little entourage, make your elite eat each other for my amusement... and then I'll take the rest of this damned city. I have the power. You know I can.”

Vyacheslav snorted satirically, incredulously, as he raised his blade once more, taking a step forward as well, his leather shoes muffled in the soft carpet below “No, you think you can, and that's all there is to it. That trinket is feeding you insanity, Theodor, giving you delusions of omnipotence and grandeur... more than you had already, anyway.”

Theodor spat on the delicate floors “You'll eat those words, you snake... and then you'll eat your own son. They say that Krov don't feed on other Krov, but when I've broken your knees and snapped your sword, you'll suck him dry... and you'll enjoy it.”

Vyacheslav felt a burst inside him; it was the feeling of reason leaving him. His veins were aflame with anger, and he could find no words to express his rage; he chose to speak through action, as he hurled himself at Theodor, his blade brought high for a guillotine strike. But Theodor was a matador to Vyacheslav's charging bull. In the very second that Vyacheslav brought down the hungry sword, Theodor hands opened up, still ignited with primal blue flame—a force that would tear that sword from Vyacheslav's hands, as Theodor smashed both hands together. A shock wave washed over the parlor, making the whole place jump as if an earthquake had struck. The chairs danced and the bookshelves regurgitated books unto the floor. But most important of all, was the blade that was whistling through the air.

Vyacheslav's rage had lead him to foolishness. He should have seen this coming, but the blood lust had blinded him, and now he was reaping what seeds he had sown. His blade dug into the wall across the room, far beyond reach. He was disarmed, put off balance, and though parasites were filling Theodor's eyes, they did not blind him to the opportunity.

Vyacheslav felt his entire body suddenly stiffen, as if he had been taken by rigor mortis. A layer of deep blue magic smothered every surface of him, as Theodor extended his right hand, the very same bustling blue flame engulfing it. Vyacheslav's neck stretched out, and even his fingers were sprawled, as Theodor's magic gripped him, lifting him a few inches over the carpeted floor. Theodor's face split in a sadistic grin, and Vyacheslav tried to speak, but could only mutter strangled groans.

“I've got you in my talons, little serpent.” Theodor snarled, and Vyacheslav knew he was purposefully imitating him, just to mock him “Wriggle and writhe as much as you want. You're mine now. I could snap your neck here and now if I wanted to... but I promised to make you suffer, didn't I?”

Vyacheslav's teeth gritted and he tried vainly to speak, all before he suddenly felt a violent jerk in his body, smashing him against the bookshelves once more. Like a puppet, Theodor had absolute control over Vyacheslav's body, and the sadist inside him couldn't help but make that all too clear. Vyacheslav forced out a furious roar as Theodor sent his body crashing into everything, into the ceiling and unto the floor, repeatedly hammering into the bookshelves until his noble blood lay in scattered blotches all over the parlor.

“It doesn't matter how much chaos I make today; when you're all dead, I will write myself into the history books, and I will write how much of a hero I've been! And you... little but a nuisance, Zakadiev. A pest from distant lands, come here to assume dominance over a people as old as the world itself. All of you damned bloodsuckers will be seen as nothing but vermin, Vyacheslav. Vermin!” he howled, just as he flung Vyacheslav against the wall, aiming to finally break his neck, as promised.

But it was not Vyacheslav who met that wall. It was mist. A sudden puff of mist washed over the elegant wood, and when Theodor realized that he had lost the arcane grip on Vyacheslav, it was already too late. The Krov lord appeared from the mist like a ghost behind Theodor, and though Theodor was quick to spin around to face him, Vyacheslav's hand was a serpent that lashed for his throat. He nearly tore Theodor's windpipe clean out as he smashed him unto the floor before him, his eyes now looking even more vicious with the blood that trickled down around them, leaving long red lines marring his hungry face.

“Vermin?! You don't know when to stop talking, you swine! Maybe if I break your throat, we can put a change to that!” he shouted, raising his leather shoe and hammering it down where he had previously gripped Theodor; or so it would have been, if Theodor did not disappear into a black puff of smoke again. Vyacheslav grunted.

“You're becoming predictable.” he said, and quickly raised his open hand toward the sword in the wall, across the room. In a flash, it turned into a small cloud of mist and rushed to Vyacheslav's hand, where it materialized—and just in time. He snatched the essence of the smoke once more, fickle and fading as it was, and sent himself spiraling after Theodor, riding the arcane trace that he had left behind him.

Iridescent moonlight poured in from windowless holes in the walls around him, heavy raindrops following. Vyacheslav's pupils widened to absorb the cloudy moonlight, to see what place he had thrown himself into now. He stood in the center of a circular room where chilling winds swept right through from the outside; the holes in the walls were like church windows, but without the glass, and the ceiling was so low he could stand on his toes to reach it. Only then did he realize how high up he was. The tallest spire of the Umbral manor gave an unrestricted view over the entire city, from the slums to the residential districts; from the quiet market in the distance to the very garden before the manor. The rising wind howled around him, screaming like banshees, biting icily at his skin. But in stark contrast to the cold, he suddenly felt a blast of heat scorch him from behind.

A roar of agony was forced from his throat, and he staggered forward, nearly losing the grip of his sword. A disturbed flutter of winds rose all around him, owls in the dozens, perched in cages scattered across the cramped circular spire room, on the floor or hanging from the ceiling. Vyacheslav did not pay it much mind, though, not while the flesh on his back sizzled, the heat having blasted right through his leather coat. He stumbled forward and fell to his knees before one of the glassless windows; they were so close to the floor that one wrong step would mean a swift descent into Morrin's arms. He stared down over the edge, seeing the ants below, the clashing soldiers in the hundreds, and felt a rush of vertigo boil up inside him.

“Fire...” Theodor's voice reminded him why he was here. He swiftly turned around, now sitting up against the wall, flanked by caged owls on either side of him. Theodor stood across the rain-soaked floors that gleamed in pale moonlight, illuminating his shadowy frame. But the light of fire contributed, a handful of flame roiling around in his palm, flickering hungrily.

“...Not an attunement I make much use of, I admit.” he said calmly, moving closer through the shadows with silver trappings, his infested eyes digging madly into Vyacheslav's own “But there are times where I must set aside the tricks, the traps... and go straight to the cremation.” while the magical flame grew in his right hand, his left rose to show the stolen trinket, which now glowed with the same fiery color “And with this,” Theodor said, the moonlight shimmering in his ruthless smile “I can cremate the rest of your pestilent family with you!”

Vyacheslav's heart jumped as Theodor's flame suddenly rose to become a sheer inferno, a roaring ball as large as himself, which he then hurled straight at Vyacheslav. The heat alone, before he had even thrown it, felt as if it could singe his skin right off; and now the whole thing was rushing straight at him. Cat-like instincts and reflexes threw him to the side, knocking over a few owl cages and sending one of them plummeting over the nearest window's edge. Vyacheslav could feel the hairs of his tail curl up in wake of the heat that passed him by and washed out over the wall like a wave crashing against the pier. He struggled to his feet, but the agonizing pain in his back crippled his every movement—it was a stroke of luck that he could dodge like that, and he wasn't certain he could do it again.

“You're a dead snake now, Vyacheslav!” Theodor shouted, and with just one snap of his right hand fingers, he ignited another ball in his hand, accumulating to the vicious size faster than anything Vyacheslav had witnessed before “Slither all you want, you know just as well as I that you can't keep it up! But me... I can do this all day, thanks to this pretty piece of jewelry. Thank you, old friend, for making this so EASY!” he laughed, violently and loudly, as he hurled another ball of fire at Vyacheslav. And this time, there was no dodging. The ball roared like a lion as it struck, consuming the entire half of the spire's apex. Vyacheslav's powerful frame was swallowed up by the flames, every trace of him swept away in one fell swoop.

Or so it seemed, at first. Dozens of owls were incinerated under the hungry wrath of the fire, but amid the scorched cages, there was a single figure yet standing. Fire consumed him whole, from horns to tail, but reduced none of it. It could have been a scorched husk, but as he stepped forward and out of the flames, that thought was crushed. That was when he held it forth: the twin to Theodor's amulet. Cut in half, there had to be another side to match—and here it was. Vyacheslav's voracious stare opened up inside the flames, and his sword shined in the bustling firelight.

“I should have used this from the beginning.” his voice was that of a demon through the crackling of the fire “It would have made all this so much less... bothersome. Time to end this, Theodor.”

“So that is how you want to play.” Theodor growled, as Vyacheslav almost effortlessly dispersed the flames with a single wave of the hand in which he held the trinket—in spite of the wrathful fire, he stood completely unscathed, save for the savage burn on his back “Fine! So I get to have an extra challenge; I like that! Show me what you've got!” he shouted and brought back his hand to create another ball, but not even half a second passed before Vyacheslav was upon him. The force that he laid into his sword slashed right through the owl king's wrist, dismembering his hand in one clean strike. Theodor's expression jerked, shock stunning him, and his magic faded in that very moment.

A second strike rushed in shortly after, cutting off the other hand in which he held the amulet, forcing him to drop it. Vyacheslav's steps were steady, uncompromising, his murderous stare burying itself into Theodor's horrified eyes. Theodor moved backward, step by step, more stumbling than anything. He stared down at his bleeding wrists, dread and confusion stealing the tongue that had otherwise been so rich on mockery and audacity. The tongue that had tricked thousands was now nothing but silent, save for the occasional terrified whimper. His steps came to a sudden stop, as he felt the hard winds behind him; he now stood upon the edge of the gleaming floors, one step away from a merciless plummet through the glassless window.

“You've given me quite the exercise, Theodor.” Vyacheslav spoke through his fanged grin as he approached the frightened lord, his blade lowered but his eyes were thirsty as always “It has been a while since I got to swing the sword like this. It can get so dull sometimes, sitting at the desk all day and night, sifting through paperwork. Thank you, Theodor, for making me feel so...” he breathed in deep through his nose “...alive.”

“Vyacheslav, I—“

“I think we're done here.” he interrupted, just as his grin grew an extra inch across his face “Let me see you fly, little owl.”

Theodor hardly even got to react, before Vyacheslav kicked his chest so violently he could feel ribs snapping underneath his shoe. Theodor's face lit up in dread, and it was clear to see that he tried to grip the edge of the windows to save himself, but without hands, no such thing was possible. Vyacheslav watched in what felt like slow motion, as Theodor toppled over the edge. A final stumble brought him low, and with one last dreadful cry, he was sent flailing wildly to the world below.

The song of swords was at its crescendo, in the great Umbral hall. The Zakadiev forces marched viciously on the Umbral defenders, and though they fought valiantly, the Umbrals were no match for the relentless advance of the Zakadievs—especially not with the elite taking the vanguard, armored demons they were, bringers of death that knew no satisfaction. Their masked faces set an unearthly dread in the hearts of enemies and allies alike—Wolfe could vouch for this. Every time he caught eyes with those steel gargoyle masks, he felt his veins run cold, despite knowing that they would do him no harm... that, at least, was what his voice of reason told him. What his heart told him, was something quite else.

Sweat ran down his cheeks and neck, though at this point, he wasn't quite certain if it was sweat of blood. The carpets at his feet that once were black had taken on a dark red hue, and they were wet as if they had been rained upon. They had, but not with water. Shattered porcelain crunched under his steps as he powered his way through the Zakadiev ranks, not charging for the deadly vanguard, but away from it—he was not here to kill, he knew this. His—that being his and his companions'—agenda did indeed match with Lord Zakadiev's will to take down Theodor and the rest of the Umbral house, but not nearly enough that Wolfe would take lives for it. Today, he would do quite the opposite.

Armor rattled as he dropped another unconscious Zakadiev soldier outside the wide open doors before the Umbral manor, where Zakadiev forces rushed in to join the bloodshed. The battle had been going on for nearly half an hour now, and still they were fighting; it was as if there was no end to neither Zakadiev nor Umbral forces. So many had been killed that blood was starting to trickle out through the front doors that yawned wide open. It took only one look through the open doors to see the front lines, where another life was taken every minute. The Zakadievs, lead by the monstrous elite, were marching up a baroque wooden staircase that Wolfe could swear would crack under their weight at any time.

“There is no end to this.” Ramund's voice, despite his words, was a refuge of sanity in this all-consuming chaos. He trudged around the grassy garden, where flowers and ferns were wet and glimmering in the gentle moonlight, much like Ramund himself. The winds were rising and the skies wept—Wolfe could feel the electric tingle in the air, and knew that a storm was coming. Ramund had neatly organized all the wounded soldiers he could find in a strict grid that filled up the entire outside garden, and Wolfe had just added one more to the list. His old eyes swept across the wounded, trying to find the ones who needed his magic the most. Some lay completely still, perhaps finally having lost their grip on life, while others sat up and demanded to be let back into the fight, despite suffering from grievous wounds just as well.

“I was thinking just the same.” Wolfe chimed as he stood there before the gathered wounded. He wiped some sweat off his forehead, and saw how it was indeed blood; not his own, though, but that of dozens others he had hauled on his shoulders. He could feel his body was no longer that of an indomitable warrior, despite how much he liked to think otherwise.

“But I think we both know that is not the case.” he followed up, breathing out a long sigh “Sooner or later, someone is going to run out of bodies to throw into that meat grinder.” he turned an eye on the battle merely a stone throw ahead of him, and saw a man's skull explode as one of the Zakadiev elites put a bullet in it “And it won't be us.”

“Us?” Ramund turned his tired stare on Wolfe, standing a few meters away, surrounded by moaning, groaning soldiers “This is not our battle, Wolfe, do not forget that. Indeed, it is in our interest that Theodor is put out of the game... but this is manslaughter. I cannot say for you, but I am only here to chip away on the death count as best I can.”

Wolfe ran a hand through his short, greying hair, and felt how it was wet with blood “This is not our battle, true.” he echoed “But this is our war. We've done Lord Zakadiev quite the favor in unveiling the captor of his son—that's bound to score us some points. Seeing his elite plow down the Umbrals like were they blades of grass, I get the feeling that they'd make worthy assets in our rebellion.”

While Wolfe spoke, Ramund knelt down before one of the wounded soldiers, and lay his hand on a bloody gash in his stomach. He was whimpering and sputtering prayers to Morrin, but as Ramund's hand began to glow verdant green, he shut up.

“I wonder,” Ramund said while filling up the soldier's gut with rejuvenating magic “why we are not blessed with the company of the Tu'Myaa. The Zakadievs were impressively quick to react, indeed, but I would have expected that the chieftain and his mend would be, just as well.”

Wolfe sat down on the wet staircase leading up to the Umbral front doors “What's to wonder about? You know how Myaani are... if things like these do not directly concern them, then they'll keep their hands clean. In their eyes, this is all just human politics in action—nothing they'd want to take any side in. Besides... I'm sure Lord Zakadiev has it all under control. All he needs to do now, is survive.”

It was in that moment, that the sound of glass shattering broke through the roar of battle, the thunder of sabatons, the clash of razor steel. Wolfe snapped a look over his shoulder, just in time to see a black figure come crashing down from the roof of the great hall, through a glass dome all the way up there. His heart lurched as the figure struck the floor, mosaic glass raining down upon him from above—it was Theodor!

“Lyrras' breath!” he bounded to his feet and rushed up the staircase, eyes locked on Theodor who lay there, eyes wide and unblinking, blood trickling from dismembered wrists. He gave no word to Ramund, sparing no moment for hesitation as he hurried across the glass-littered, blood-soaked carpet.

“Stand back!” he ordered, the lieutenant in him waking up, despite that he knew he had no authority over these men. Soldiers that weren't busy taking lives flocked around the fallen lord, and Wolfe had to shove his way through to get a better look. Once he stood in the rapidly growing circle around Theodor, he saw how there was no breath on the lord's lips, no pulse in his veins. His porcelain skin was ripped and torn from the shards of glass, and most of his limbs lay twisted at an unnatural angle. No one could have survived that kind of fall. Theodor was no exception.

“Ohhh, goodie!” Wolfe looked over his shoulder and saw the soldiers behind him were stepping aside, making way for the tall and elegantly dressed wife of Vyacheslav, Nadezhda. Her gentle hands rubbed together and her vicious eyes flared in sheer delight, fangs exposed in an excited smile “Look at you, Theodor! Look at you, breathless, lifeless...” her feline eyes fell to his wrists “...Handless. Did someone clip your wings, dear owl?” she stood before him, taller than any of the soldiers surrounding her, planting her high-heeled shoe on his torn chest “Looks like my dear husband had his share of fun. Someone do something about the body... but bring me back the head. I think it would look good on a wooden pike in my front yard.”

As she turned around and left, the soldiers all nodded, mumbling 'yes madam' like a murder of crows would croak. Wolfe watched in silence as they collected Theodor's body, hoisting it unto their shoulders and marching out the front doors with it. Ramund stood in the doorway, a grave look in his eyes as he saw. They met eyes for a moment, and though Wolfe offered a victorious smile, Ramund did not.

Wolfe looked skyward, to the tall ceiling, so far above. The glass dome through which Theodor had fallen was shattered completely, nothing left but colored stumps in the fringes. But there was something more. A sound, faint through the noise of battle. Drifting on the winds, slow and yet so enthralling. Wolfe couldn't quite believe it at first, but the more he listened, the clearer it became. From somewhere above the mist, there it was, the gentle song of a violin.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 10
Part 2 of the largest chapter of both books! This one is easily one of my favorites, and I had a blast writing it. This chapter is called 'Red Rain', and I believe you will know why, when reading through. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!
Walking through the wall was like pushing through a curtain—a curtain that didn't yield, yet didn't stop her either. It was strange to pass through something meant to keep unwelcome guests out like was it mere mist. It wasn't the strangest thing she had tried—for her, what was strange and what was normal had become frustratingly hard to distinguish—but she still had to open and close her hands, to know that she was still made of solid material. She looked down at her hands, but it didn't matter; the darkness that engulfed everything in here hid them away. For all she knew, they could just as well be absent. For what the darkness hid was there, and yet not there, all at the same time. This she had come to learn in the years she spent seeing no light but weary candlelight. Perhaps her hands were there, and perhaps they were imaginary... but who was to say that simply because something was imaginary, it was not there? The darkness that overcame her made her doubt the reality of her hands, despite being fully able to feel them. But then again... reality was such a horribly vague thing as well.

It smelled damp, down here. Damp and old, like a long-forgotten graveyard. But a graveyard would have soft moss to tread on, while this place had only granite. Hard, unfeeling granite. She felt droplets of water land in her hair. The darkness, the wetness, the coldness; it all felt so familiar. With good reason, too. The only thing that was missing, was the distant screaming of other inmates, and doctors telling her that they were here to help her—all before pushing another needle into her neck.

“We're through.” Pavlov said, from somewhere in the darkness “Just to state the obvious.”

His voice resounded on walls in the distance, also somewhere in the darkness. The sheer ambiguity and uncertainty of everything in the darkness was a phenomenon in itself, she found. Maddening to most, having such basic knowledge robbed from them, but she found it to be... comforting. Like a gentle mother sweeping her sweet embrace around her, telling her that she needn't worry about a thing. To be so rid of the knowledge of everything that the eye could see in light was a relief, she found. But that was all taken away, as light made its return.

Her eyes squinted, as Pavlov held up a bright and blazing rune inscribed on his palm. His young, pale face was revealed in the raw and colorless shine of his rune, and by his side, so did the third of this small company of three.

“I pray that we know what we are doing.” Duncan's voice held a cautious doubt to it, weighing down his words as he looked around the place he had found himself in. Pavlov's rune illuminated a good part of it: cellar walls draped in moss, wine barrels and tool boxes and countless lonesome shelves in what seemed like some sort of granite maze. Fortunately, it was not all that complicated, from what Rose could tell by the light of Pavlov. There were no dead ends, no tricky turns; deep into the darkness, further than Pavlov's light could reach, the corridors were laid up in a strict grid. Duncan's ragged armor of mail and plate shimmered in the glow, and Rose could smell his sweat through the touch of moss, moisture, and wine. It was clearly his. She had grown rather accustomed to his scent by now, and felt that she could recognize it quite accurately. Pavlov, on the other hand, smelled strange. Acrid and... bitter. Perhaps it was a Krov thing.

“Is it really necessary to pray for such a thing?” Pavlov asked as he held the rune up like a torch, a glance turned at Duncan “I mean no offense, but it seems easier to simply... ask me. No need for divine guidance; lest you consider me divine, of course. In which case, I'm duly flattered.”

Duncan wrinkled his nose at the young Krov “It's... just something we say. We, as humans. Can I explain this later?”

“Of course.” Pavlov replied, turning his eyes on the musty corridors ahead “But to address your previous concerns: yes, we do know what we're doing. At least I do. Rose?”

“Catching rats.” Rose said, just as her hand lashed out and snatched a rat from the floor.  It was busy lapping up a growing pool of wine that had dripped from one of the barrels—it never saw her coming. It squeaked and wriggled in her grasp as she held it up, and gave it a few sniffs. She cringed. It was drunk out of its mind, reeking like it too. Strange, how this need to intoxicate one's own mind seemed to be a recurring theme within living creatures. Humans especially.

“Aside from catching rats?” Pavlov continued.

“Rescuing Matvey, I suppose.” she said as she crouched to put the rat down, watching it waddle away, unsteady on drunken feet.

“Quite correct.” Pavlov said. Rose could hear his satisfied smile. The rat soon disappeared into the darkness, and as it did, Rose's attention slipped. She stood up again and turned to face the two, an expectant look in her eye. She knew she didn't have to say anything, for Pavlov to start talking.

“Now then.” she was correct “Let's go over the details. In operations like these, it is always a bad idea to be more than just one person. More people means a larger chance of either of them messing up, I say. Therefore, Duncan and I will remain here to guard the, uhm, 'entrance', while you go searching for Matvey.”

Rose cringed “Why me?”

“Because you're a lady.” Pavlov said rather frankly “You're lighter than either of us, not to mention that sneaking in armor is horribly clunky.” he gestured down at Duncan's sabatons “Imagine trying to sneak around in these. Anything could go wrong, and with these things on, it will.”
Rose cast a look at Duncan, and gave him a slightly apologetic shrug—he didn't seem to mind. He did, however, seem to mind Pavlov speaking ill of his sabatons.

“Alright... so what about yourself?” Rose asked, eyes squinted at Pavlov suspiciously “You're a lot more experienced in this kind of thing. Why don't you just do it, and I'll stay here and guard the entrance with Duncan?”

Pavlov chuckled and raised a finger “Because without me, there is no entrance. If I get noticed—and with the entire manor in such a fit, that is quite a possibility—I'm going to need to make a swift exit. Making a rune takes a few moments, and if I have Umbral's guards on my heels, I doubt I will have those moments. You're the better choice for a safer method, that's all.”

Rose snorted incredulously “That's a pretty way of saying that I'm expendable. But alright. What's the next step?”

“I'll show you.” Pavlov said with an amused smirk, something that Rose wasn't quite certain to feel comforted or discomforted about. The young Krov strolled over to a nearby wall and placed his palm on it, transferring the blazing bright rune unto its murky granite surface. Once it sat there, casting its radiance across this small part of the Umbral cellars, Pavlov approached Rose, and began to paint another rune in the very same palm.

“As said, the manor is in a terrible fit as it stands, so you're going to need some extra... tools. There's a staircase at the end of the cellar, and going up there without my help would be suicide.”

Rose watched as Pavlov's finger glided across his own palm, slowly creating a rune wearing an enigmatic purple color. She looked up into his feline eyes “How compassionate of you.”

“Compassion?” Pavlov asked, seeming amused and confused at the same time “Is that compassion? Personally, I'd say it's simply professional courtesy and efficiency. But maybe it's compassion. Maybe I'm learning. Yay.”

“Any chance we could speed this up?” Duncan spoke up from the sideline, arms folded and impatience clear on his scarred face “We've got a certain someone's life depending on us. Your own brother, as a matter of fact.”

“Almost finished.” Pavlov said, mere seconds before his finger painted the last glowing line of the rune. He looked into Rose's eyes and put that hand on her shoulder “Good luck. The manor is a large place, and Matvey could be anywhere. Don't get caught. As your friend said, my brother's life depends on it.”

Rose had no love for this kind of pressure. Unfortunately, it didn't seem she had much choice in the matter. She raised her finger to point out something, but she was stifled as she saw how her finger had become completely transparent. Looking down, her entire body and clothes too, had become naught but thin air. She was invisible.

“How can they catch what they cannot see?” she said with a quiet smile of her own, before she realized that it didn't matter—they couldn't see it anyway. Pavlov, however, gave a smile of his own and a confident wink. Her eyes drifted toward Duncan, who had set himself down by the mossy wall, sitting in a small puddle of rainwater that had seeped through the floors. She hoped that she would return. She hoped that she would return to lift his spirits. He could use a little positive energy, these days.

With silent footsteps, she turned on her heels and made for the darkness. The staircase was closer than she had anticipated, only a stone-throw past the bubble of light spreading from Pavlov's rune. It was as musty as the rest of this place, thick with lichen, creaking with every step she ascended. She looked backward to see Pavlov's rune illuminating the two, Pavlov having taken a seat as well now, sitting beside Duncan and offering him what seemed like a cigarette, from here. She could see his fangs poking out as his lips moved, but she couldn't hear what he was saying. She hoped Duncan wouldn't take that cigarette. It was ungainly.

She continued to rise up the staircase, extinguished torches on her left, embedded in the granite wall. Before long, she made it to the top, where a wooden door stopped her in her tracks. She leaned in close, pushing her ear against its mahogany frame, and heard shuffling on the other side. Footsteps, plenty of them, rushing about, trying to be everywhere at the same time. Voices too, muttered orders cast here and there, though nothing shouted. Strange, she found, how the people behind the door seemed rather quiet, despite this hour of turmoil. There was a keyhole too, and she turned her eye to it, to gaze through it.

Servants, she saw. Women, all of them, hurrying about the slender corridor that the door would open up to, rushing up staircases to the left and the right. They were all dressed in black and white, looking like clean-swept chess boards with dainty outfits around their gentle frames. Few of them were older than teenagers, but what truly caught Rose's attention, was how some of them had black silk wrapped tight around their mouths, silencing them. And on that silk, there was written something. It was always something different, from servant to servant. 'Noisy', one wrote. 'Sluggish pose', another wrote. 'Clumsy'. 'Spilled tea'. 'Sauce on dress'. Curiously, Rose spotted that this one actually had a little spot of sauce on her dress, that she hadn't had the chance of cleaning off.

It took a while before the corridor was clear, but once the opportunity arose, she quickly opened the door and shut it quietly behind herself. There was a long carpet spanning down the corridor, serving to expertly muffle her steps—though with dozens of others rushing through the manor, perhaps it didn't matter much. She looked around the corridor, to the mahogany ceiling, to the portraits hanging from the walls... she squinted her eyes at them, lips raised to a sneer. She waited for them to start talking to her, mocking her, but then she realized: they couldn't see her. Hah. Outsmarted. She gave them all a cocky, victorious smile.

On all fours, she crept forward, down the mahogany-walled corridor. She crept as she had seen wolves do, or even werewolves. She recalled having seen, at some point in her blurry past, these large man-beasts lurk so cunningly that despite their massive strength and size, not even the sharpest ears could sense their approach. She recalled how haunting it looked, these Mjaln-sized monsters creeping across the ground like were they mist—and then the screams and the bloodshed that would inevitably follow. She did her best to imitate the few she had seen from behind metal bars... or at least what she thought she had seen. And as a fully armored soldier came rushing by her invisible self, noticing nothing of her, she concluded that it was working quite nicely.

She crept up to a nearby window, from which silver moonlight spilled. It passed right through her as her head poked up over the windowsill, sitting there on her knees, staring at the world outside. Down there, on the streets below, it was becoming clear that parley and diplomacy had come and gone. Behind a fence of blackened metal, beyond a garden glistening with droplets formed from the mist, soldiers were gathering—and they were not the specter-like soldiers of the Umbral house. These were soldiers carrying armor of fur, steel, and velvet, flying the black and red colors of Zakadiev. Their emblem was emblazoned upon their chest plates, and their helmets were shaped like the heads of fanged gargoyles. Only then did Rose notice that each and every one of them, were Krov. There were others who wore not nearly as impressive armor, and these were indeed not Krov. It was an elite, Rose figured, the highest-ranking guard of the Zakadiev house. Impressive too, with armor taking on wickedly snake-like features, and even their tails wearing scales of glistening steel. Long sabers hung from their belts, and no less than three flintlocks lay embedded in bandoliers across their chests. And in the middle of them, as the crowning piece of them all, stood their lord.

The rain had cleared and made way for the moon's iridescent shimmer, cast upon the rows of steel that was lining up before the Umbral manor's gothic facade. Vyacheslav was a wolf among dogs. One thing Rose admired, was how menacing he could make himself seem. He may well have been a fop like all the others, a velvet-decorated rat with gilded teeth, but the way he could don himself such a predatory appearance reminded her of the werewolves she had just thought of—and imitated. Strange, how the only one taller than him, seemed not nearly as indomitable.

Ramund stood with his arms folded among the growing platoon of soldiers—elites as well as not—wearing a face of concern, rather than wrath and vengeance. The old giant was a softy, it was clear for everyone, and he was more thoughtful of the well-being of Matvey and the rest of the company, than the demise of Lord Umbral. And then there was the third one—the only one that Rose found hard to read.

Wolfe. Edan Wolfe, the man whose entire being smelled and tasted like lies. Everything about him seemed as untrue as true, vague like the mist that surrounded him. His face was quiet and calculating, his eyes full of a professional keenness, like a strategist standing before the map of an ongoing battle—which was not far from the current reality. But what he was here for, was anyone's guess. Rose knew she would need to speak more with this aging veteran some more. There were truths in him that she wanted to dredge out.

Rose's attention was torn away from the moonlit outside, as she heard footsteps again. Hard, but not ironclad like the soldiers that had passed by from time to time. In fact, there stood a soldiers near her right now, staring out the window within arm's reach of her. But the one who came to join, was no one less than the lord of the house himself.

“You there!” Theodor barked as he noticed the lonesome soldier standing there by the window. Rose flattened herself against the wall, still crouched, still invisible. Her eyes rose to his porcelain-white face, and saw his amber eyes full of distress... and something more. It looked like worms, but she couldn't quite tell.

“What in heaven's name do you think you're doing, standing around like your head's full of cotton? Is your head full of cotton?” he demanded, but kept talking before the soldier could answer “If you're so intent on standing still, make yourself useful and guard the boy's room. For all we know, we could have entire dozens of infiltrators trying to get their hands on that kid—so don't let me down, got it?”

Rose watched as the soldier stuttered out a few words of understanding, knowing full well that this wasn't the time to stand around and enjoy the view. Theodor turned to look out the window at which Rose sat crouched, and quickly approached. A jolt of adrenaline burst through her veins as she scurried to the side, fast enough to get out of the way, but not so fast that Theodor would hear her. She crept in under a nearby drawer, its long legs giving plenty of space for her to hide. She cast a look behind her, watching the soldier wander down the corridor. Time was running out—she needed to follow him, but not quite yet. She stared impatiently and anxiously at Theodor as he stood by the window sill, gazing out over the Zakadiev forces that were gathering at his very gates. His face was full of anger; he knew he was cornered. His fingers clutched around what Rose recognized to be that amulet from before. A stroke of luck came over her, as Theodor turned around and hurried up a nearby staircase.

Swift like a mouse, she shuffled out from under the drawer, and began rummaging around in its contents. Pens, inkwells, thread... scissors. Perfect! She snatched it and tucked it into her pocket, in which it too became invisible. With a look thrown to either direction, she closed the drawer, and lurked after the soldier.

Like a shadow, she was never far behind. The soldier hurried up and down staircases, through even more of these corridors with the carpets that so conveniently muffled her steps. She was but a brief dent in the soft fabric as she stalked the oblivious soldier. He led her down a staircase larger than the rest, and into what seemed like the main hall of the manor. One huge chandelier hung from the ceiling, its steel and glass adorned with figures of owls that sat and watched those that scurried around below. The hall was almost church-like, in its appearance. The wooden walls carried mosaic windows, three on either side of her. Five of them displayed the five gods that she knew quite well: Keyen, Lyrras, Hrumalz, Jullix, and Morrin. Their names were written at the base of the windows. But there was a sixth. A tall woman with eyes closed and arms extended to either side, face turned heavenward in prayer. She had owls perched on her shoulders, and angel wings made of book pages. Rose looked down at the base of this window, and saw the name. 'Knowledge'. She wasn't surprised. If there was anyone who would value the spirit of knowledge as highly as the gods themselves, it would be this den of spies and information brokers.

She and the soldier were far from alone, in this church-like hall. Bathed in the flickering light from the chandelier, there were several other soldiers, one of them a commander who was impatiently walking back and forth over the huge black carpet, briefing another line of straight-backed goons on what was going on—ridiculously twisted, of course, to make it sound like Theodor was the victim here. There were nobles too, huddled around a hearth in the wall, pretending that everything was going to be alright. Servants and butlers scurried from room to room, doing their best to pamper the children and the adults alike. This was such a strange reaction, Rose found. Were they trying to squeeze out the last luxury of nobility, because they feared it was about to be taken from them?

The soldier Rose was following made no stops to hear the briefing, nor to comfort the other Umbrals. He made straight for a door in the other end of the hall, and in his heels, Rose crept. She dodged marching soldiers or darting servants like she was dodging bullets. There was a terrible noise in this place, so many people, not to mention the commander who had a voice that sounded like a barking bulldog. Rose probably wouldn't even need to sneak all that much; she could casually stroll after her target with hands in her pockets, and no one in here would even know she existed. She quite enjoyed this, actually. Being able to breathe down someone's neck without them ever noticing, being able to lurk so close to someone who was convinced they were alone, was all quite an amusing thought. Was this how ghosts felt?

Before long, the chatter and clamor of the church-like hall faded away, as Rose followed the soldier into what seemed like a kitchen. The commander's barking voice was a distant noise muffled through mahogany walls, and much to Rose's surprise, the kitchen was strangely... empty. Not a single cook, servant, or butler. Pots full of soup were steaming over pulsing embers, and the smell of food was fresh and strong in here. It was as if the staff had just dropped everything and fled. In fact, that seemed like quite the plausible explanation, in this situation.

The soldier approached a door in the corner of the kitchen. Rose crept close, ready to slip through just as he opened, as she had done with all the other doors before. But this one, he did not open. Instead, he raised his steel knuckles and gave the door three quick raps, and raised his voice.
“You in there, kid?” he asked. There was silence. Rose sat on one of the many kitchen tables that filled up this room, her feet dangling and her eyes moving between the soldier and the door. Though it was quiet to begin with, a gentle voice followed shortly after.

“Go away.”

Though his voice was humble and hardly audible through the door, there could be no mistake: that was Matvey. Rose's heart rose slowly in her chest.

“Sorry, buddy, can't do that.” The soldier continued, slowly shaking his helmeted head “Orders are orders. Can I get you something, though? We've got a whole empty kitchen out here. Thirsty?”
There was a silence, after that. A skeptical silence, Rose could feel, a silence to deem what truth there lay on the words of the soldier.

“A little.” Matvey peeped up, a few seconds afterward “Is there water?”

The soldier turned around and looked over the desks, sending a shot of adrenaline rushing through Rose's body as she felt his eyes pass over her. His armor rattled as he approached a sink in the end of the room, and opened up a small latch in the wall. Water quickly flowed through, and Rose wondered where it was coming from, until she thought back to the intricate web of aqueducts outside. The soldier filled up a porcelain cup, and set it on the counter beside him. He took off his helmet, revealing the face of a middle-aged man with fluffy brown hair. He took a few sips of the water, perhaps to test how fresh it was, before returning to the door.

“I got your water. Seems fresh.”

Once again, there were a few seconds of silence, before Matvey spoke again “Why am I in here?” he asked, as if he had been dwelling on that question for quite some time. This time, it was the soldier's turn to go silent. He stood there with a mouthful of emptiness, like he was trying to say something, but the words eluded him. He ended up sighing instead.

“I wish I could tell you.” he said “Not because I'm not allowed to, but because I honestly don't know. We don't get told much, in these ranks. We follow orders, we get paid, and that's about it. We quickly learn not to ask questions... bad things happen to those who do.” he seemed regretful for a second, but that somber mime was soon shaken off “Anyway, I'm sure a cup of water won't get me in trouble. May I come in?”

“Well... yes. But I don't think I'm the one you should ask.” Matvey said from behind the door.

“What they don't know won't hurt them.” the soldier said with a little smile as he twisted the key in the lock, and slowly pushed open the door. The light from candles spread around the kitchen counters fell into the room beyond, and unto the little boy who sat in the middle of it. It was a utility room, with brooms and mops and other cleaning utensils, hardly even large enough for Matvey in the first place. Strange, Rose found, to keep such an important prisoner in a utility closet—but perhaps time was too short to arrange anything better.

The soldier crouched down before the boy, and handed him the cup of water. Matvey seemed quite hesitant as he sat there, legs folded and fingers nervously fiddling with the dyed tuft of hair on the end of his tail. His feline gaze moved submissively between the cup and the soldier, clearly unsure if this was some kind of trick. But as he reached out to take the cup, it proved not to be. The soldier just gave him a nod and a smile.

“I don't know what business Umbral has with you Zakadievs—and I'm not sure I want to—but I'm not about to treat a kid like a war prisoner. Sit tight. I'm sure it'll all be over soon enough.” he said, giving him a quick wink. Matvey sat stifled, unsure of what to say, until saying nothing proved to be the prudent option. His mouth was silent, but his eyes were thankful, as he began to drink from the cup. The soldier took off his gauntlet and ruffled Matvey's hair playfully, before he rose to his feet and moved to resume his post.

It was in that second, that Rose drove the pair of scissors right through his neck. She felt the twin blades dig through the soft flesh, so far into his throat that the tip poked out the other end. His face was a stunned mess, eyes wide, breath torn from him. He jerked violently, ripping the scissors from Rose's hands, gripping his impaled throat like he was strangling himself. He stared out into thin air, but little did he know that he was looking Rose straight in the eyes. His mouth opened, but his words became blood, trickling down his lips and his brutalized neck. He clutched weakly at the blades that had sliced through his trachea, his strength waning already. Rose couldn't stop staring from behind her shroud of invisibility. Her heart raced in her chest and her entire body felt like it was on fire from the inside. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't look away from the soldier—his eyes in particular. The way confusion and dread clashed together nearly intoxicated her, and she wanted more. There was something primal inside her that had taken over, something unholy that filled her entire being with ecstasy at the sight of the soldier's agony. She loved it and feared it at the same time. There was nothing else in this world that could make her heart race like this, but it was quickly becoming too much to handle. The soldier staggered forward, banging into the kitchen counters and sending pots and pans clattering on the floor, all while trying to comprehend what was happening—in vain, of course.

Rose jolted forward, and grabbed the scissors again. She couldn't take it any longer, no matter how much the animal inside her filled her up with elation. With a hard yank, she drove the scissors even further across the soldier's neck and sliced open his jugular. An agonized yelp was forced out of him as he fell to his knees, blood now washing down his armor, reddening the black. Rose stepped backwards, and watched the soldier writhe his last. She watched with eyes that refused to blink, in fear of missing it. She stared as life poured out of the soldier, and she was split. Split between wanting to cry and wanting to laugh; split between demonic exhilaration and boundless horror. Divided, all she ended up doing, was standing there. She did nothing but watch until the soldier stopped struggling.

She was stifled, stunned, unable to move and look away from the pool of blood that grew around the soldier's lifeless body. Half of his face lay in it, and the look of horror never faded from him. Rose's mind was a haze, drowned in the excitement and the dread, and for several seconds, she didn't even breathe. She couldn't, not even realizing that she was—quite literally—breathless. However, she was quickly dragged back to reality, as she heard the distressed whimpers of Matvey.
She turned her eyes on the boy and saw how he had squeezed himself tightly into the corner of the room, eyes squeezed shut, like trying to be rid of a night terror. He had spilled his cup of water all over the floor, and his face was scrunched up in horror, tears trickling through his closed eyes. Rose crouched down before him, elbows on her eyes.

“Kid.” she said, and Matvey gave a horrified yelp at the sound of her voice “You can calm down now. He's dead.”

Matvey only continued to cry, sitting there in the corner, looking like all he wanted was to escape these recent seconds of bloody abhorrence “Go away!” he cried through a voice chopped-up and stammering.

“No.” she said quite firmly “Matvey, this is not the time. Don't you recognize my voice? I'm Rose. Friend of Ramund, Duncan, and Wolfe, remember? You can't see me, but I'm here.”

Matvey didn't say anything, this time. He buried his face in his knees, curled up in a ball. Despite being part of a race of vampires, Matvey sure was having a hard time dealing with blood, Rose found. She sighed, and reached out to touch his knees “Matvey, look, we need to—“

“Don't touch me!!” he shouted, his entire body jolting together like he had been shocked “Leave me alone, you monster!”

Rose snorted violently at that, withdrawing her hand like pulling it out of a fire. She bared teeth of her own, and snarled through them “Monster? That's not very nice. I'm here to save you, you pompous brat. Or would you rather sit tight and let Theodor mess with your feeble little head?”

Matvey kept silent, again. He sniffed and he wept, but he said nothing. Rose turned her head, and heard heavy, plated footsteps growing nearer, somewhere behind the mahogany doors. The soldier had made quite some noise when he died, and Matvey's shouting certainly wasn't making it any easier.

“I don't have the patience for this.” Rose growled and quickly lashed forward, scooping up Matvey in one big swoop. The boy immediately began to yelp and cry in fear, hammering on Rose's back with what little strength he had. If there was any time when Rose knew her cover was blown, this was certainly it. The time for stealth had passed.

She spared no time for hesitation. The heavy boots of steel were getting ever closer, and time was getting ever shorter. Her eyes snapped toward a second door in the kitchen, aside from the one she had entered with the soldier, who now lay dead and bloody on the floor before her. She stepped nimbly over him as Matvey continued to wriggle and struggle on her shoulders, screaming for her to let go. Stupid boy, he didn't know what was good for him. Because of his screaming, Rose had no other option, but to chase down her escape.

She darted for the door and threw it open. The clock was ticking, and the more noise she made, the quicker the footsteps became. The worst of it was that she couldn't go back the way she had come, and whatever she did from now on, was all counting on her intuition. What way to go? That one.
She bolted through empty rooms, parlors and living rooms, bedrooms and sleeping halls, all of them completely rid of souls, and she was suddenly thankful for the evacuation to the main hall that the entire manor had undergone. But she was pursued. These rooms would not be empty for much longer.

“Let me down! Let me down! Let me down!” Matvey continued to squeal, his little fists relentlessly hammering on Rose's back, but she gave him no mind. Her focus lay elsewhere. Her eyes rushed from doorway to doorway every time she entered a new room, skidding to a halt on the soft carpets beneath her. The stomping of steel was growing not only closer, but more numerous now—four, she could count, from the sound of it. Every time her intuition told her nothing of where to go, she simply picked a door at random, and hoped that she would not fall into a dead end.

This would all have been so much easier if the damn kid had just shut up, Rose thought to herself. Unfortunately, that was not the case. Matvey was in too deep a fit to be silent, despite how much Rose ordered him to pipe down. At this point, she barely even spared thought to what door to choose, and simply went for the one her eyes fell on first. She hurried up and down staircases, and several times did it seem that she had come back to a room she had already been in, despite that she was so certain she was moving forward. The manor was huge, of that there was no doubt, but so many of the rooms looked so damnably alike. Black carpets and portraits of strange figures, a hearth, chairs and tables, sometimes a shrine in reverence of this owl-adorned spirit named Knowledge.

She ripped open yet another door, her legs screaming in fatigue as much as Matvey was screaming in fear and anger. This time, though, the pattern was broken. The room was no longer empty, and in it, sitting in the center before a crackling hearth, was the very lord of the house. Rose's veins were set on fire as she felt Theodor's eyes in her own, his amber stare almost nauseatingly full of these strange, unearthly magical parasites. His iris was barely even visible any longer. It was as if he stared right at her, despite her veil of invisibility. He bounded to his feet, throwing backward the chair he sat upon.

“What in heaven's name is—“

Rose didn't stick around to listen to Theodor's confusion, as the door behind her was ripped open once more by her pursuers, and she herself rushed for the opposite one. The door slammed behind her, but she had lost precious time, and though Matvey was but a child, the weight of him slowed her down. And that was not mentioning the pain that was shredding up her legs.

But the glimmer of hope shined upon her dread, as she suddenly found herself in a quite recognizable corridor. Her eyes fell out the window for but a second, where she saw Vyacheslav standing, seeming no less lustful for bloodshed than he did before. But she had no time to spend on admiring his ferocity, not with all the soldiers and Theodor in her heels. She hurried for the final door, the door that would open up to the cellar, and sprinted down the stairs.

She thanked her lucky stars—despite not believing in such nonsense—that Duncan and Pavlov still were where she had left them. They stood in the glow of the very same rune, chatting casually about something, but the time for chatter was shoved out of the way as Rose came down the stairs with the screaming Krov boy on her shoulder.

“Do your thing!” she screamed from behind her magic shroud “Do it now!”

Pavlov, despite Rose's cryptic shouting, seemed to know exactly what she was talking about. The door behind her was nearly torn off its hinges as her pursuers burst through, swords drawn and voices raised in fury. Duncan instinctively drew his sword as well, the fool, he couldn't hope to stand a chance against all these—but Rose appreciated his courage nonetheless. Rose had never before run head-first straight into a wall, but the second that Pavlov smacked a rune on the mossy granite, she did. And thankfully, she suffered no concussion, no impact. It was like running through mist.
Vanguard, Book 2, Chapter 9.6
Part 2 of the largest chapter of both books! This one is easily one of my favorites, and I had a blast writing it. This chapter is called 'Red Rain', and I believe you will know why, when reading through. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did!


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Steen Engel Belhage
Artist | Professional | Literature
My name is Steen, and I am a writer. I believe that title will stick with me for many years to come, as it is one of the few productive passions I have ever had. I've picked up many hobbies and free-time activities, but many of them have somehow faded into the vast depths of boredom. However, my writing has never suffered that fate. I am determined and passionate in my work and I do my very best to train myself to be disciplined about it as well. If I wish to make a living of it, I'll need to be able to write even when I don't want to. But let me tell you... it isn't easy.

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BlueLionEyes Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
Happy birthday! :cake: I hope you have a wonderful day! :boogie:
SteenBelhage Featured By Owner May 8, 2014  Professional Writer
Why thank you! I should hope so too! :D
RollingTomorrow Featured By Owner Jan 27, 2014   General Artist

Hello! :iconexcitedhiplz:


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


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


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


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


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

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